The following is the first offering of a multi part series on Copyright that will be published over the next month.
In library circles it’s a dirty word.
When I use the word “copyright” in my professional capacity, it is usually when I am trying to convince someone to desist from something, preferably immediately. As a librarian, it is my least favorite conversation. I’m sure you hate having it as well. And copyright probably comes up far more often than you would like. I don’t know about you, but the reason I hate the conversation is because there is so much debate about what copyright law is exactly and how it works.
Copyright law can be loosely defined as the combination of laws governing the rights of the producers or owners regarding the use, sale and availability of works. As professionals, we work with copyright material every day. We also rely on a number of exceptions written into copyright law that apply specifically to libraries in order to serve our patron’s needs. Copyright is not just the law that protects the owners rights. It is also a framework that allows for fair use or license agreements with people who want to use what they created (Us!).
Deceptively straightforward looking, isn’t it?
Sorry to burst your bubble. Those of you who breathed a sigh of relief upon reading the last paragraph will be distressed to learn that the copyright landscape is changing in a number of significant ways. By “changes”, of course, I mean lawsuits.
There are two recent cases in particular which we as a profession should be looking at very closely. The first is Authors Guild,Inc. v. HathiTrust. The second, the Google Books case, is currently before the Supreme Court. Both have significant implications regarding the role of technology, accessibility and the transformational nature of fully searchable titles. There have also been rumblings of changes coming from the Legislative branch of the Government. The times, they are a’changing (was that a copyright violation? Read on!)
The Honorable Maria A. Pallante (who is the U.S. Register of Copyrights) gave a well-received lecture at Columbia Law last year. Her remarks set off a firestorm of discussion. Her basic position is that the law governing copyright needs an overhaul. Changes in technology have always driven changes in copyright law. Usually, law has lagged behind somewhat. In the past, when technology did not change quite so quickly, that lag was a drag race between a souped-up hot rod and a VW bug. In the last few decades however, the lag is more like a bicycle trying to keep pace with a space shuttle.
Not surprisingly, Congress has been holding hearings on this subject in the last year. Sources in the know have hinted that a series of bill will be introduced in the near future. These bills will amend copyright law for the first time since 1976 (legislation passed in 1976 but effective date was January, 1978). As a point of reference, 1976 was the year that Steve Wozniak designed a single board computer for hobbyists called the “Apple 1”. Everyone take a moment now to glance at your i-phone and marvel at the fact that we are working off legislation that was created when the fanciest technology available looked like something from The Flintstones.
I am an unabashed policy nerd, so I am looking forward to the upcoming opportunities for public comment. While this definition of excitement may call into question my quality of life, I think that, in this instance, the entire profession really ought to be excited about this opportunity. Because 2016 will be an election year (and we all know how much legislation gets passed in an election year), this next cycle may be the next window for quite some time in which THE LAW MIGHT ACTUALLY CHANGE. Look at your i-phone again. Think of that vintage 1976 Rube Goldberg device you just saw. Judging by the historical record of copyright revision, this is possibly the only time in our professional careers that copyright law will be rewritten. Think of what you do daily at work. You make decisions about purchasing information and granting access to information. You help people find and use information. You are the information guide and sherpa. Your voice, the voice of the library professionals, is the most knowledgeable voice in the arena of the use of copyrighted information. Shouldn’t it logically be the loudest voice in the debate over what the laws that govern copyright say?
Yes, it should be. It should be (I say loudly with exclamation points)! We, the librarians, the information lighthouses that lead the meandering ships of knowledge seekers towards safe shores, we should be the ones advocating for changes in antiquated laws!
We should advocate the heck out of it! And other, stronger, words! Think of every time you’ve been confounded by usage, every time you’ve had to warn someone (using very sharp words) to read but not copy under pain of death by copyright infringement lawsuit. We have a duty to our library patrons, our profession, and (dare I say it) to our own sanity to advocate for laws that actually reflect the technology that we are using.
Don’t touch that dial (as they used to say in the days when our current copyright laws were written). I will be keeping all of you informed of opportunities for public comment as the process of revision goes forward in Congress. Stay tuned to this station (or blog in the current technological parlance) for part 2 of our series on Copyright!