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Reflections on copyright in academic vs commercial sectors

Note: the below was originally drafted as a short reflection to go in my Chartership portfolio. After asking on Twitter I thought a few people might be interested to see it, so I redrafted it as a blog post. Enjoy!

Having spent much of my career in ‘special’/workplace libraries, when I moved to the academic sector in 2014 I was interested to see how the situation with regard to copyright compliance differed. Here are a few reflections on the differences and similarities I have found in the past couple of years in this role.

Copyright reasons, by gaelx on Flickr, shared under CC BY-SA 2.0

Copyright reasons, by gaelx on Flickr, shared under CC BY-SA 2.0


The types of libraries I have worked in are as follows:

  • Legal institute (mix of commercial use and private study), 2007-08
  • Commercial law firm #1, 2009-10
  • Commercial law firm #2, 2011-12
  • Charity, 2013-14
  • University library, 2014-present

At commercial law firm #2, I was for a brief period (before I left) the Copyright Licences Officer. At the charity, I was the only information professional in the organisation and the only person with any knowledge about copyright and information law (leading to me spotting some potential data protection breaches the charity was at risk of making, but that’s a story for another time…)

At the University, I don’t have any specific responsibility for copyright, but am regularly asked questions about it by lecturers and other library users, and I do a little basic copyright education in the course of my information literacy and library skills teaching.

The similarities

Probably the main similarity I’ve found across all workplaces is in the level of ignorance of (and in some cases, indifference to) copyright and IP law: certainly among library users (whether colleagues in commercial or charitable workplaces, or students and academic staff in education settings), but also in some cases among library staff themselves.

It is our job as information professionals to educate users on copyright and ensure compliance. However this is difficult to do when, in my experience, some information professionals feel uncertain of how to advise on what can be a complex area. As Jane Secker and Chris Morrison’s UK copyright literacy survey found, there is good basic awareness of copyright among professionals in UK information, cultural and heritage institutions, but a clear need for copyright education to support professionals “grappling with an increasingly complex international copyright regime”.

For many library users copyright is, when they think about it at all, seen as an inconvenient barrier preventing them from doing what they want with information. This forces librarians to be the “copyright police”, a role I certainly feel uncomfortable with, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. As an information professional, my instinct is to want to help people do what they need, so having to tell people they can’t do things goes against the grain somewhat. This was particularly the case in the commercial sector, where there are very few exceptions we could make use of – it feels less of an issue for me in the academic sector, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

The differences

Copyright in the commercial sector was in some ways considerably easier than in the academic sector, largely because there are very few exceptions to be aware of. As long as our licences were up to date and we knew what they permitted, it was fairly easy to know what we were and weren’t allowed to do. Essentially, advising on whether or not something could be used legally boiled down to “are you prepared to pay for it”. The difficulty came in enforcing this.

As discussed above, library users in all sectors either don’t think about copyright at all, or consider it a nuisance at best. This did feel like a worse problem in the commercial and charity sectors than in academia: in my experience, attitudes ranged from simple ignorance (assuming things didn’t apply to them), to dismissal, to outright hostility. I was once told by a lawyer colleague that “It doesn’t matter, it’s only copyright” – the implication being that it wasn’t like “real” law!

The best way I found to counter that was by clarifying the risks involved: law firms are highly risk-averse, as are charities, so giving concrete examples of the potential consequences (e.g. levels of fines that could be incurred) was generally effective at convincing that copyright is, in fact, a real law!

Although I find the range of exceptions and licences I need to be aware of in an academic setting more complex, the big advantage to information professionals in this sector is that you have a much bigger team backing you up. In my commercial and charity roles, I was either part of a very small team, or the sole information professional employed. Particularly in the charity where I was on my own, this left me with very little back-up when arguing the case for copyright compliance. In the University I am part of an enormous (compared to where I’ve worked before!) library team, including more than one person with detailed knowledge of our copyright licences and the copyright permissions and exceptions that apply to academic work.

It is still difficult in some cases to get library users to care about copyright, and we still have to be the “copyright police” from time to time (e.g. telling students and lecturers why they can’t just reproduce any image they’ve found on Google Images!). But because there are more ways to encourage academic users to use copyrighted material legally, I feel less of a jobsworth doing so. There are also opportunities in an academic setting for educating library users about their own copyright – particularly when talking to researchers who are looking to publish. I’ve found that highlighting the worth of their own copyright can make it easier to emphasise why they should respect others’ copyright.

Just as I was finishing off this post and getting ready to publish it, I happened to see this article by Jane Secker in UKSG’s eNews, about copyright literacy for librarians, and it chimed really well with some of the thoughts I’ve had on this. Jane’s argument is that many librarians fear copyright partly due to worry about getting it wrong, but also potentially due to a lingering perception that copyright is all about preventing people from doing things rather than enabling them, contrary to the librarian’s role in facilitating information use. I think that’s a really interesting point, and I’ve certainly felt happier dealing with copyright in a setting where there are more ways to enable people to use copyrighted material legally.


In all the sectors in which I’ve worked, copyright has presented its own challenges. The major crossover is in the need for copyright education aimed at both library users and library staff, the latter needing support for dealing with this sometimes complex topic.

Overall the main difference across sectors seems to be in attitude and scale. In the commercial sector copyright awareness is limited to ensuring the right boxes are ticked and bills paid. While it may be mainly viewed as a nuisance, actually enforcing copyright compliance is reasonably straightforward.

By contrast, copyright in the academic sector is often more complex, but also more flexible. There is also more support for library staff in this area, and larger teams of people to consult with and back up decisions.


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