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Fair use – what more can I say?

I can say that we have come a long way. Back in the late 1990’s, most librarians did not know the four factors of fair use. I know because I asked them. Today, I can give a copyright workshop and when I ask “have you heard about fair use and the four factors,” all hands are raised. We can congratulate ourselves on a job well done in helping librarians understand the value of fair use and assure them it is not the complex brainteaser that some would lead us to believe. Six lightbulbs, one with the copyright symbol inside

We have great copyright publications to refer to, written by librarians, and by librarians with JDs that focus specifically on library and education issues and how they relate to copyright. One no longer must pore over Title 17 —unless you want to—with no guidance. We have copyright tools that help us determine fair use like the Fair Use Evaluator and tools to help us determine the public domain status of works like Peter Hirtle’s copyright term and public domain chart and Elizabeth Townsend-Gard’s Durationator. We have the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use. We have the Copyright Advisory Network, run by admittedly, copyright geeks who respond to copyright questions from the field. We have done a lot of work, and it has paid off. Except….

For school librarians. Many are still stuck on fair use guidelines which are arbitrary and do not have the force and effect of law. (They are, however, easy to apply). Rights holder groups continue to provide materials to school librarians about copyright that range from “not quite right” to just plain wrong. Even if these efforts are well-meaning, there is a tendency to encourage librarians to first (not last) ask permission “just to be on the safe side.” My response is the “safe side of what?” Copyright law is not about picking one side or another. It’s about advancing learning to benefit the public.

Some progress has been made, but school librarians generally find themselves the sole librarian in the school (or schools) without colleagues to serve as sounding boards. Copyright comes up when a teacher wants to make copies or show a film. Copyright is not topic generally deliberated. And school librarians fear that a wrong answer to a copyright query will put the school in legal jeopardy. School librarians are required to get an educational certificate to be a librarian in a school. Rarely is copyright or any public policy study part of the curriculum.

So we can’t pop the fair use champagne cork just yet. Let’s get the school librarians on the team!

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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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