Magazine article American Libraries

Keeping Library Digitization Legal

Magazine article American Libraries

Keeping Library Digitization Legal

Article excerpt

The ability to digitize hard copies, the proliferation of born-digital content, and increased access to online distribution hold the promise of improved access to library materials. Despite these advances, the legal issues surrounding collections increasingly hinder libraries and archives in providing this access. This hurdle can be overcome by a mixture of good policy, careful action, a reliance on the protections afforded to libraries and archives by the law, and a healthy attitude toward working with lawyers or general counsel.

Hesitant? You're not alone

Technology has vastly outpaced both the law and digital librarianship. Any library with a good scanner and some staff hours can make high-quality digital copies for online distribution or provide patrons a place to comment on and discuss materials online. Many libraries don't, though, because they are unsure whether they can legally do so.

This isn't really their fault. Copyright law is unclear, and there is a massive amount of misleading or outright incorrect information available online. With the law incomprehensible and the perceived penalties for missteps so extreme (millions of dollars for downloading songs, anyone?) it's no wonder some libraries are hesitant to move forward with their projects.

To help fix this problem, libraries need a simple plan to enable them to make aggressive, full, and legal use of their collections. The following steps will, if followed, take your library a long way into the digital future:

1. Arm yourself with an understanding of the basic law. Yes, the law is confusing, but there are some basic principles you should be aware of. Librarians including Ken Crews, Mary Minow, and Kevin Smith have published extensively on this subject and provide invaluable insight into the legal complexities of digital librarianship.


At the very least, you should be familiar with the rights and responsibilities laid out in the Copyright Act, with particular emphasis on Section 106, which lists the rights that copyright provides to creators; 107, which lays out the fair use limits to those rights; and 108, which gives libraries even more rights to use copyrighted works. Crews, Minow, and Smith have written some excellent introductory material on the law, and becoming familiar with their work will do wonders for your legal knowledge. Copyright law is extremely difficult to understand, but developing at least a basic understanding of the law will help you plan your project, assemble good facts (more on these below), and effectively make use of the protections provided to you under the U.S. code.

2. Surround yourself with good facts. You already have a general understanding of what good facts are. Activities at one or another end of the spectrum are pretty clearly recognizable. It doesn't take a lawyer to realize that fighting an elderly customer over a $20,000 medical settlement after you burned her with scalding hot coffee is a battle in which you are unlikely to prevail. Similarly, no plaintiff wants to haul a veteran librarian onto the witness stand and grill him about his reasonable belief that making copies of a scientific journal was fair use.

Libraries serve one of the main goals of copyright law, as they clearly "promote the progress of science and the useful arts." Society gives authors a limited monopoly on the things they create, but also retains a healthy slate of rights. …

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