Written by Christy DeShong
What Is “Copyright”? A Brief Overview
Put simply, “copyright” refers to the control an individual has over anything he or she creates, be it music, art, writing, or anything else that can be permanently recorded in any form. U.S. copyright law is incredibly extensive. The entire text of the law can be found at the U.S. Copyright Office’s Web site, here. Please bear in mind that these laws apply only within the U.S. Other countires are subject to their own copyright laws, which may be more or less strict.
In the United States, a person automatically owns the copyright on anything he or she creates upon the moment of its creation. Other individuals generally cannot use this material without the express permission of the copyright holder. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.
Copyright protection is not eternal. As the U.S. Copyright Office’s “Copyright Basics” article explains, copyright only extends for 70 years after the death of the author (or last surviving author, in the case of works with multiple authors). Works made for hire or anonymous works have a copyright duration of 95 years from creation (p. 5).
After copyright expires, works are considered “public domain”. Since no one owns the rights to these works, the general public is free to use them as they please. Individuals also sometimes willingly choose to give up their rights to a work because they desire it to become public domain.
Works that are not public domain can still be used by individuals to some extent without permission. The acceptable ways in which they may be used are lumped into a general catagory called “fair use”. Unfortunately, the legal limits of “fair use” are, for the most part, not strictly defined.
The Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law in 1961 listed some of these acceptable uses:
While some of these examples seem clear enough, others remain vague. For example, “parody” is not necessarily a clearly-defined concept. Also, this report dates from 1961, an age when household computers were not yet a reality. The arrival of the digital age and the Internet made copyright infringement easier than ever.
In 1996 a gathering of over 95 organizations met in an effort to create a set of more modern established fair use guidelines. Their results can be found in this report from
the United States Patent and Trade Office. Though these guidelines cover many situations and can be very useful, they are just that: guidelines. They are not legally binding and may not necessarily apply to any given situation.
What does this mean for libraries?
Obviously, any kind of librarian has access to a vast amount of information. All of that information was created by someone and may or may not be currently copyright-protected. If a public librarian wishes to hold a film screening accompanied by an educational lecture concerning the film’s contents, must the librarian seek permission to screen the film, or does fair use protect the viewing, since it is being used in an educational setting? May a library patron make photocopies of a reference book that is not in circulation in order to view some of its contents at home? Often, these questions are never addressed since the copyright holder is never even aware the instances have occured, but does that really make the question moot?
Copyright laws also apply to things like the computer software used within the library. Does the library have the right to install software to an unlimited amount of computers? Can programs be installed onto personal computers if a librarian wishes to work from home? Obviously in this case the librarian would have to refer to the software’s liscencing agreement, which varies from program to program.
Google Books is a search function developed by Google that allows users to search for sections of text in thousands of books. Many publishers are concerned that this violates Fair Use, yet Google does not actually list the full text of any books without permission from the publishers. Do you think this qualifies as Fair Use? Why or why not?
In 2007, a YouTube video of a toddler dancing while a Prince song plays in the background was pulled from YouTube after Universal Studios, who owns the rights to the music, issued a takedown notice. After reading the CNET article here, do you agree or disagree with the judge’s decision?
United States Copyright Office. (2008). Copyright Basics. Retrieved from http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.pdf
United States Copyright Office. (1998). Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians. Retrieved from http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ21.pdf
Lehman, Bruce A. (1996). The Conference on Fair Use: An Interim Report to the Commissioner. Retrieved from http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/dcom/olia/confu/report.htm