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Fair use necessary exception for libraries and educators

To celebrate Copyright Week, the American Library Association will join a number of organizations to exchange ideas, information and actions about copyright reform. From Monday, January 13th until Saturday, January 18th, copyright experts will explore different aspects of copyright law on the District Dispatch.

Today’s blog is a sneak peek on analysis conducted by the OITP Copyright Education Subcommittee regarding the kinds of questions that librarians receive about copyright to identify areas for committee copyright education work. The study reveals that in today’s library and educational setting, specific exceptions cannot address the majority of copyright questions.  Fair use is needed to resolve the majority of real-life situations that librarians face as “the copyright point person” in libraries, schools, and universities.

Guest blogger: Gail Clement

Fair Use represents the most significant area of copyright uncertainty and confusion among American library workers, according to a study conducted by the Copyright Education Subcommittee (CES) of the American Library Association’s Office of Information Technology (ALA-OITP). Their findings come from an analysis of 1000 real-life copyright questions asked and answered via the online copyright reference service, the Copyright Advisory Network (CAN) Forum between 2004 and 2011. Each question was analyzed by two independent researchers using a project Codebook and coding forms, ensuring a high degree of intercoder reliability.  Results of the analysis, as shown below, indicate that 340 of the questions, or 34%, reflected the need for training in Fair Use principles and guidance on performing a four factors analysis.  The complete data from the study will soon be published in a peer reviewed library journal.

The questions analyzed for the study came from a diversity of library workers and patrons and represent many types of settings: public, academic, school, corporate libraries; individual artists, business owners, entrepreneurs, and hobbyists; and schools, colleges, and government agencies. The copyright questions relating to Fair Use represented both library operations and patron activities that rely on this essential exception in copyright law to fulfill their respective missions.

Sample Fair Use questions analyzed in this study include:

  • Copying a professor’s own copy of a foreign film for the library reserve shelf;
  • Publishing a translation of a copyrighted work for non-profit (educational) purposes;
  • Inclusion of a copyrighted survey in a research paper;
  • Using real estate charts from a purchased report to deliver a seminar;
  • Publicly posting (within a library facility) copyrighted book reviews and/or annotations from sources such as SLJ, Booklist, YALSA, VOYA, etc?
  • Publish online a summary of TIME mag article?

A number of the questions analyzed in the study reflected common Fair Use myths, including:

  • If a copyrighted work is excerpted in a new work, citing the source is enough to avoid copyright infringement;
  • As long as no admission is charged for showing a movie in public, the performance is okay under Fair Use
  • For-profit institutions can never rely on Fair Use in their copyright management decisions

Based on the findings from this study, members of the ALA —OITP Copyright Education Subcommittee are working on copyright education resources targeted to meet the needs of the American library community.  More information about the Copyright Education Subcommittee may be found on

Gail ClementGail Clement (@Repositorian) is the Head, Digital Services & Scholarly Communication, University Libraries at Texas A&M University

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Carrie Russell

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