Who cares? It’s only copyright!

This is something that’s been rattling around my brain for a while. As an information professional, I am required to care about copyright. I am required to at least try to make sure the lawyers in my firm abide my our CLA licence, and I am required to follow the rules myself (of course). However, I wonder sometimes if it’s really worth it. It gets a bit dispiriting sometimes to have to be the one who cares about copyright, when it is painfully obvious that no one else does.

Before I am accused of writing deliberately inflammatory blog titles , I should point out that I am quoting verbatim from someone at my firm. Without going in to too many details, this individual wanted to use a contract that another lawyer was using at the same time. They suggested a solution to this problem that, while practical, was illegal. When I pointed this out to them, the title to this blog was the response I received.

I didn’t comply with their request at this time (although I strongly suspect that after I refused to help, they simply did it themselves – nothing I can do about that!), but I will admit that I have occasionally bent the rules for our library users. The problem that I have is that if a lawyer asks me to do something, and I tell them that it can’t be done due to copyright/licensing restrictions, I become the obstacle in their eyes. It’s not a question of legality to our users – if I can’t legally supply a document in the format they require, then from their perspective I am simply being obstructive.

I have heard some stories from other librarians about trying to explain/enforce copyright restrictions that put my experience into perspective. For example, I have never heard a user assert that if something is published online, it is automatically free from copyright! I did once, in a previous job, try to explain to an American law student why she couldn’t actually photocopy an entire, 300+ page textbook (apart from the practicalities!), only to have her respond, indignantly, that “in America, copyright doesn’t apply to students!” (that’s not true, right?). I suppose I’d expected that lawyers, of all people, would appreciate “it’s against the law” as a reason not to do something. Perhaps a little naive of me..?

I was thinking about this when I saw this report from the British Library (yes, I know it’s a bit old – I’ve got lots to catch up with!). The report is on “Driving UK Research: is copyright a help or hindrance?” and it “brings together a range of views from leading researchers on how the framework for intellectual property needs reviewing for the digital age”. Although written from a scholarly perspective, it does touch on some of the attitudes I’ve found from legal practitioners. I’ve only skimmed through it so far, but I’m going to give it a more thorough read over the weekend.

Really though, as interesting as I find discussions of how to ensure that copyright and intellectual property laws remain relevant to the digital age, that isn’t actually my primary concern. Of more immediate importance to me, in terms of my day-to-day work, is how to get across to our library users that when I say I can’t simply copy and paste an article from the Financial Times into an email for them to send to a client, I’m not just being difficult. I don’t see the moral arguments of “someone worked to create that content, therefore they deserve to get paid for it, therefore we can’t just find ways around their paywall” as carrying much weight with a lawyer on a deadline! I’m interested in how librarians from all sectors handle this, as this is probably one of the few aspects of librarianship that applies to every sector. How do you explain to your users why you have to enforce copyright?


7 comments on “Who cares? It’s only copyright!

  1. The role I’m seconded from is massively copyright based, and I am forever explaining to academics why I can’t do what they want me to. I think I have a better deal than you because, whilst academics are certainly contemptuous of copyright, at least they don’t have ‘real’ law-breaking so immediately to hand to compare it like lawyers do!

    There are three things that are important here for me, in terms of doing what you can (as in, doing what one can as a librarian) to help make things easier in a situation which is never going to be perfect:

    1: I never, *ever* say ‘I can’t do X’ – I always say ‘x isn’t possible due to copyright law’. I do everything possible, linguistically, to reaffirm the notion that I am the messenger and as such, completely uninvolved with, and completely unable to influence, the process which makes the actual rules.

    2: If I’m feeling provocative (ie I’d basically never actually do this! But I’ve seen it done to great effect but more chutzpahy people than me) I say – are you familiar with our insitution’s copyright policy? No? That’s because there isn’t one – WE JUST FOLLOW THE LAW, as in, you know, THE LAW..?

    3: Don’t take responsibility to police stuff that it isn’t your responsibility to police. Librarians sometimes get defaulted to the role of copyright gate-keeper. Check if you actually are, or have to be. (I’m taking generally, not you specifically) With the CLA licence I hear a lot of e-resources people or other librarians saying about how they ‘can’t do X because the academics will break the copyright laws’ – the thing is, the responsibility to police the academic isn’t always actually the library’s. If the institution has a copyright officer, it’s up to them to pull the academics up on their misdeeds – if he or she isn’t based in the library, it isn’t a library issue. Just don’t do anything illegal, document everything to cover your own back, and let the rest fend for themselves. I know that sounds quite apathetic or cynical, but we go too far the other way in this industry, and assume copyright responsbility (and all the time and stress that involves) where we need not.

    • Good tips! Totally agree with #1 – I always phrase it like that too. Doesn’t stop the lawyers from responding with “but can’t we just do it anyway?” or similar, but it does at least make it sound slightly less my fault! I like #2 as well, not sure I’d ever dare say it though!

      As far as #3 goes, I am not actually the copyright officer (that honour is bestowed upon my colleague), but it is actually the library’s responsibility here. Actually, the librarian here who is also copyright officer might be leaving soon, so not sure who’s taking over her role then. Could theoretically be me – good time! :s

      I do agree that we can only go so far in policing the users, and if they’re going to go ahead and breach copyright anyway without our knowledge then there’s nothing we can do about it! Trust me, I don’t lie awake at night worrying about what copyright-related hijinks our lawyers get up to when we’re not around 🙂

  2. Our CLA licence has LovelyBossLady’s name on it, and copies are posted prominently near the copiers…since we ourselves are located nowhere near these copiers, we have to trust that the solicitors read and understand their obligations. Hmmmm.

    I.T. refer copyright related issues to us, for “judgement” on various things they also get asked to do, at which point you get the fun. Things like explaining why you can’t just take images you found, and strip off that pesky information that tells people where it came from, ie not from you. Or why you can’t wholesale lift presentations and pretend you did them either.

    I do find that vague words about the large fines involved does tend to scare them enough to not do that. Or at least, they may do it, but they don’t tell us about it, and we don’t have the time to be standing behind everyones shoulder and checking if they’re doing what we’ve told them.

    In a previous position I had to explain to an individual why it wasn’t a good idea for us to “lift” nice images from a website to prettify our current awareness email…which went to lawyers who worked at the place the images were to be lifted from.
    Also, explaining why a photographer would need to grant us a licence to reuse his images of our building.
    And no, it’s not ok to just photocopy newspapers and distribute those copies, just because your face is in them.

    But, didn’t you know, the law doesn’t apply to lawyers!

    • Ha, ok I’ve never had to deal with that sort of thing! It’s mainly people wanting to send out articles etc to clients or potential clients, from journals that we pay for access to, and not understanding why they can’t just copy and paste into emails, or run off dozens of photocopies and distribute them that way.

      Recently, we bought a (quite expensive) construction contract for one of our lawyers, who then scanned the whole thing and emailed it to us, suggesting that we distribute it to the rest of the team so we wouldn’t have to buy any more copies! Bless her, I know she was just trying to be helpful 🙂

  3. I once had the horrible job of telling a library user with learning difficulties that she couldn’t photocopy an entire book chapter by chapter. She had been coming in to the library and photocopying a worst witch book, chapter by chapter, to take home and read herself. Apparently one of the library assistants had helped her because she couldn’t use the photocopier herself. Then, one day, she asked a different library assistant for help who thought that this didn’t seem right with copyright, so asked me.

    I then had the horrible job of trying to explain that she could borrow the book if she wanted, but not photocopy it all. Nevermind the fact that it would cost her more to photocopy it than to actually buy the book herself! It would also mean that the author wouldn’t get their PLR allowance and that it wouldn’t be counted in our issues. I was following the rules (which I believe are completely 100% right by the way) but got some real hatred from some colleagues from it!

    • Oh wow, that is a horrible situation. Unfair of your colleagues not to back you up over it, too. That, to me, is an argument against “bending the rules” – if you or someone else does it for one patron, it makes it harder to then say that something can’t be done. “But so-and-so said I could last time!” is really hard to argue with.

  4. Definitely a problem. I think maybe more so with my users because they don’t really understand copyright in the first place so I have to explain it and then tell them what they can do.

    I have a pretty strong suspicion that they just say yes to me and then go do what they like but as Ned says, not my problem if I have explained and don’t know what they’re doing!

    I had a user get quite annoyed because I wouldn’t scan and email an entire issue of an academic journal (about 100 pages) to her. I mean come on, even forgetting copyright, who has time?!

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