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Everyday fair use in libraries

Tammy Ravas, Visual and Performing Arts Librarian and Media Coordinator, University of Montana
Tammy Ravas, Visual and Performing Arts Librarian and Media Coordinator, University of Montana

Guest Blog Post by Tammy Ravas*

Happy Fair Use Week everyone!

Fair use is one of the most important exceptions to the exclusive rights of copyright holders. It allows people to use copyrighted materials for certain purposes without the need to ask permission from rights holders. Fair use is the safety valve in the law that allows citizens to exercise their first amendment rights when using copyrighted materials. It balances the rights of copyright holders with those who make uses of their materials for reasons that benefit society at large. In the actual statute, these purposes are: “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.” Without fair use, many familiar and everyday experiences could become illegal. For instance:

  • Search engines like Google would not exist.
  • Online stores would not be able to effectively operate.
  • Only the rights holders of original images would be able to create Internet memes that one often finds on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and many others.
  • Using a DVR to watch a TV program later in the week would be illegal.
  • This commentary could be next to impossible to create by virtue of the fact that each link and quotation I use from outside sources would require permission from rights holders. If fair use did not exist, the creators behind the content that I am linking to and quoting from could effectively censor this post by either denying my request or by charging me an exorbitant amount of money in licensing fees to use their material.

By looking at these examples, it is easy to see how you and your patrons rely on fair uses of copyrighted materials every single day. Here are a few library-specific scenarios to consider:

1. Making library materials accessible to those with disabilities:

A hearing-impaired patron would like to view a video in your collection that does not have captions. If there isn’t a copy available for purchase then fair use may help you to make that item
accessible to them. The Association for Research Libraries’ 2012 publication, Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries, provides guidance on this issue on pages 25 and 26:

When fully accessible copies are not readily available from commercial sources, it is fair use for a library to (1) reproduce materials in its collection in accessible formats for the disabled upon request, and (2) retain those reproductions for use in meeting subsequent requests from qualified patrons.

2. Use of digital files and multimedia equipment in your library.

An example of this would be a student creating a presentation for a high school class about movies based on video games. A student may use books and videos from the library’s collection along with other hardware and software to create the presentation. In more and more cases, students are assigned video presentations to post online to their classes. Also, patrons who read books, listen to music, or watch videos on mobile devices are relying on fair use to do so.

3. Digitizing materials in your collection.

In this example you can watch a video about how the New York Public Library relies on fair use to digitize an important collection on the World’s Fair.

To learn more about fair use, as well as fair use week, please visit the following resources:

Copyright and Fair Use Stanford University Libraries

Fair Use Week


Note:  Guest blog author Tammy Ravas is  Visual and Performing Arts Librarian and Media Coordinator at the University of Montana.

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Carrie Russell

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