Libraries uphold the public interest in copyright issues

Copyright is a part of intellectual property law and is explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 8, Clause 8): “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”Libraries have a great interest in copyright issues, and librarians (not individually, but at the national association level) are among the major voices trying to influence the interpretation of just what the clause means.

When a work is under copyright protection, only the copyright holder is allowed to use it to make money. No one else can publish or sell it. No one can copy it or parts of it or alter it to make new works except with the copyright holder’s permission. When the copyrights expire, the works enter the public domain, meaning that anyone can do any of those things.

Current copyright law is a hodgepodge. Basically, only works created before 1923 are definitely in the public domain. The status of everything since then is murky. For example, something published for the first time today is in the public domain if the author died before 1935. The 1976 copyright law attempted to simplify matters by preempting the states’ rights to enforce common law copyrights. Unfortunately, it made an explicit exception for sound recordings. They will not come under the Federal copyright law until 2067!

What does any of this have to do with libraries?

  • The 1976 copyright law also introduced the concept of fair use, that is, circumstances in which people can make copies of copyrighted works without seeking prior permission and without having to pay anyone for the privilege. The rules seem simple enough on the surface, but library patrons often need help interpreting them to know what they can and can’t do.
  • In many cases, it is impossible to determine if a work is protected by copyright, and who owns the rights if it is. These so-called orphan works are in a legal limbo. Libraries push this issue so that, among other reasons, their patrons can more easily know how they can use library materials.
  • Each advance in technology opens new copyright issues. Librarians must keep up with the copyright implications of new technology both to assure that their own operations and procedures are within the law and to interpret the issues to patrons.
  • Libraries rarely if ever have a direct financial interest in the outcome of copyright issues. Therefore, librarians have maintained a reputation as a voice for the public good. “Friend of the court” briefs filed by library associations in copyright litigation can potentially tilt the outcome in favor of public interest as distinct from the interests of the contending parties.
  • With increasingly longer terms of copyright protection, someone has to defend the entire concept of public domain.

This list only begins to cover libraries’ involvement in copyright issues. Most of the public probably has little interest in intellectual property litigation in general. Copyright issues seldom make news and, I think it’s safe to say, never become the most followed stories. We should be glad for those librarians who do care and who do become experts on the subject as they work for the public interest.

Illustration available from Geek&Poke under a Creative Commons license.


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