Monday, May 08, 2006

Using and abusing copyright and Fair Use

I teach some element of copyright law in every university class that I teach. When I do workshops on digitization, I talk about copyright and sometimes I even do workshops specifically focused on copyright. (This Friday, I'm facilitating a copyright discussion in Buffalo.) Through these experiences, I am continually amazed at how little most librarians and library workers understand about copyright. As a group, we are getting more knowledgeable, but in general we have a long way to go. Why? First, library schools don't make every student learn about copyright, and my understanding is that some schools either don't have a class specifically on copyright or the class is not part of the regular semester rotation. For example, at Syracuse University, the graduate class on copyright is taught during the summer as an on-campus, five-day class. It is too bad that it is not taught during the regular semester and not taught in a way that makes it accessible for distance students. So we have librarians being trained and entering the workplace with a basic idea of copyright, but likely unable to consistently interpret the law correctly.

Then we have non-librarians who really don't understand copyright at all. They underplay the role of copyright and overplay their ability to apply Fair Use. In the business world, I have been in some very interesting copyright discussions and often find myself having to teach someone (perhaps a client) a few basic principles about copyright law, Fair Use, and content licensing.

For example, I remember being with a group of consultants and having one person exert that what we wanted to do with some content was legal under copyright law. I tried to gently put forth my viewpoint, but wasn't making much headway. The consultant in reiterating his viewpoint said that he wasn't a copyright expert, but felt that he was right. Someone else jumped in and pointed out that I was a copyright expert (which quieted the gentleman down!). Expert? Let's just say more knowledgeable than most.

With so many people thinking that they know the law and that they are interpreting it correctly, we all have to be careful to state our expectations about content we place on the Internet, including those materials we digitize. We need to tell our users what they can and cannot do with the content that we place online. You may be afraid to spell it out, but your users will appreciate knowing your exact expectations. Be blatant. What can they do without seeking additional permission? When do they need to contact you for permission, and exactly who should be contacted?

I am now more on the look out for digitization projects that do both a good and bad job of stating what their users can do with the content. I think a great example is the "Conditions of Use" created for UBdigit, which even includes the citation format for when something from the site is used. A bad example is the lack of information on the PictureAustralia web site telling people what they can and cannot do with materials connected to that project via Flicker. Some projects tell you nothing at all like this one, the Art of Asia. Is everything on this site in the public domain? I would suspect that the answer is "no."

During the summer slow period at your institution (whether that slow period is real or mythical), take some time to look at your web site through the eyes of your users. See where you need to be more clear about conditions of use (or terms & conditions, as they are sometimes called). Is there content that could be published under a Creative Commons license? If yes, why not do so. And if materials are in the public domain, tell people. Take time to stop your users from having to guess. Tell them what they need to know.

Yes, this is something we all need to do. Even me.

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