A Passion for Copyright

One librarian’s love-hate relationship

May 14, 2010

Copyright is a subject with which I believe most librarians have a love-hate relationship. I am mostly in the love-it camp, but not necessarily in the love-all-the-regulations-and-guidelines one. I enjoy immensely the detective-work aspect of finding the copyright owner and then requesting permission for use of a copyrighted work. Nothing makes my day more than having a faculty member talk to me about a publication for which permission is needed.

Yes, I know that puts me in a small minority of people and maybe even makes me appear weird. It can be frustrating when one reaches a dead end or permission is denied. But finding the copyright owner and writing for permission, then waiting for a response, is like waiting to see if I’ve won the lottery (okay, maybe it’s not that exciting, but it’s close).

Searching involves the digging-up and following of leads, culminating in the name of a copyright holder who may be contacted. Those searches are at the very heart of why I became a librarian. My entire career has been in academic libraries; and although I didn’t start out as a pursuer of copyright, over the years, I gradually became the person who was contacted about most things copyright-related. Of course, I’ve always made it clear that I am not a copyright expert or a lawyer, but will do what I can to obtain permissions.

The worst part of the “game” is when the response comes back a definitive “no,” even with a willingness to pay whatever fee might be assessed. Faculty are almost never happy about that answer. This is the “hate” part of copyright for me: when a faculty member is not attempting to circumvent the law or illegally use someone else’s intellectual property, yet has to develop a Plan B. That is when I see and often hear their frustration.

I have found that most professors simply want to teach their students, often using supplemental readings. Most are willing to jump through whatever hoops are necessary, including monetary ones, to that end. There are those, of course, who make an effort to ignore or circumvent the guidelines. This may be possible if one is photocopying alone at some remote printer, away from librarians’ notice. But when that same person requires the assistance of a copying service, wants to make a course pack to sell in the bookstore, or places the same articles on reserve for consecutive semesters without acquiring permission, he or she will meet with another roadblock—the “compliance police.”

Commanding copyright compliance

I was once a Digital Millennium Copyright Agent, which is a fun copyright area of a different stripe. I received letters from companies about digital copyright infringements such as the downloading of film clips or copyrighted music. I would then contact the alleged violators—primarily students—to tell them to either remove the offending materials from our campus network or be removed themselves (from the network, that is). I always expected resistance, and rarely received any. The Pollyanna in me has found that most students seemed genuinely unaware that downloading something that appears to be freely available online is a violation—or so they’ve convinced me. Usually, once everything was explained, they’d readily take down the materials, satisfying me, our information technology services department, and the infringed-upon company.

Again, most faculty and students understand the restrictions on photocopying sans permission. However, sometimes that doesn’t stop them from taking out their frustrations on said copyright stickler—often me. And thus I arrive at another of those copyright “hate it” moments—being snarled at. Nevertheless, this very denial of usage often leads to the “love” part for me once again, and I can come full circle–tracking down the copyright owner and seeking permissions. Copy on!

Sharon M. Britton is library director at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands Campus in Huron, Ohio.


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