Read the Fine Print

Think twice before you click “accept”

October 21, 2010

There probably isn’t a person alive who’s read the Terms of Service (TOS) of every technology or service they use. Those TOS statements are usually quite long and full of boilerplate legalese that any company must include. When you’re quickly trying to load and use new software, reading a TOS statement is not a priority, so most of us just click “accept” and move on.

Terms of Service or Terms of Use statements usually include rules about what you can do with a company’s software, service, or product and what they can do with your content or information. You tacitly agree to abide by those terms when you use their product. Sometimes, the terms impact how a library can use a technology or give a company broad rights to content that you or your patrons have created. Libraries should be cognizant of the contracts that govern software, services, and products they use and how they may impact patrons.

A number of public and academic libraries have begun using the popular mail and streaming video service Netflix to provide videos for their patrons. On the surface it sounds like a brilliant idea: For a small amount of money each month, you can provide to patrons a DVD catalog that is significantly larger than what any library could purchase. However, according to Netflix’s Terms of Use, “use of the Netflix service . . . is solely for your personal and non-commercial use.” This indicates that use of the Netflix service by an institution to circulate videos to their service population is a violation of their contract.

“We appreciate libraries and we value them, but we expect that they follow the terms of agreement,” Steve Swasey, Netflix’s vice president of corporate communications, said in the September 18 Chronicle of Higher Education, emphasizing that the firm does not offer institutional subscriptions and “frowns upon” libraries loaning Netflix DVDs or video stream to faculty members to share with students. has similar personal use restrictions regarding the use of digital content on the Kindle eBook reader, and yet a number of libraries are loaning out Kindles full of eBooks. While Netflix and Amazon probably wouldn’t want the bad press that could come from suing libraries for violating the terms of their contracts, most school districts, colleges and universities, companies, and municipalities would not want their libraries putting them at risk.

Libraries today utilize a variety of online tools to have conversations, get feedback, and collect knowledge from their users. Patrons are adding book reviews to library blogs, putting photos on library Flickr accounts, and commenting on library blogs and Facebook pages. When software lives on a library’s server, the library has the control and ability to protect patron information. When the library uses a hosted service like Facebook, PBWorks, or Blogger, the library has far less control over how their patrons’ information is stored and used.

Many Web 2.0 companies have Terms of Service and privacy policies that make it clear that users own their content and it cannot be used in other ways by the company. However, other firms make claims on user content or constantly change their privacy settings, leaving previously private content open to all. Libraries have fought for decades to protect the privacy of their patrons’ information offline and patrons trust the library to do the same for them on the web. It is critical that we are aware of how patron content will be protected before encouraging users to contribute to a website.

New digital technologies have opened up many possibilities for libraries, but they have made the work of contract compliance and protecting patron privacy more difficult. When considering deploying a new technology in a library, it is imperative that the organization understands the rules they are agreeing to abide by. When something is unclear, simply contact the company and ask, getting any special permission in writing. This will ensure that libraries don’t make costly investments of time and money in a technology they ultimately cannot use for legal reasons.

Meredith Farkas is head of instructional initiatives at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, and part-time faculty at San José State University School of Library and Information Science. She blogs at Information Wants to Be Free and created Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. Contact her at librarysuccess[at]


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