January 2011 Archives

Why you should listen to librarians about copyright

A librarian colleague recently sent out an announcement about the UM Libraries' copyright workshops to faculty in one of the departments she works with. One of the faculty members responded to my colleague by suggesting that such educational opportunities would be more valuable for her, as a member of the faculty, if they were conducted by someone who "really knows about copyright, like an attorney." This is not the first time I've had someone (almost always a faculty member) suggest librarians aren't a "real" source of information about copyright.

©Libn, angry.
CC BY Matt Baxter

This makes me angry - but not on my own behalf. I have a J.D. and an attorney license I can wave at people who are this hung up on credentials.

This makes me angry on behalf of my colleagues (MLS-accredited librarians and beyond), many of whom are far more qualified to discuss copyright with a faculty member than many attorneys. Here are some reasons why:

1. A lot of lawyers don't know much about copyright

I got an email the other day from a classmate who took a course in copyright law with me asking if he could just copy images from other websites onto his blog, because you can just use things that are online, right? Dude (who shall remain nameless) is a practicing attorney. And very very wrong about a basic issue in copyright.

The standard law school curriculum never goes anywhere near copyright. Even "IP overview" classes usually spend a lot more time on patent and trademark than on copyright, although that's changing at many schools. Almost all attorneys have a baseline knowledge in contract, property, criminal law, and other standard subjects. But they do not have such knowledge of copyright. And copyright is a pretty complicated area of law. It's in the professional ethics code (see CA ethics code) that attorneys can get themselves up to speed on unfamiliar areas of law in order to represent clients, but I would not want to be represented by a generalist on anything more than a very basic copyright issue.

There are some attorneys that specialize in copyright, or practice a lot in the area. They will have much better knowledge and advice than generalists.

2. Librarians get context

Librarians understand the structures of knowledge and information. Few copyright specialist attorneys have extensive experience with academic publishing, but academic librarians - they have an amazing view of the whole system and life-cycle of scholarly publishing. While I can't speak as broadly about my public librarian and special librarian colleagues, I know they, too, have amazing understandings of how information, knowledge, and culture interrelate.

3. Librarians just know a lot about copyright

This fall, I did some research into what UM faculty (and lecturers and researchers) and library employees understand about copyright. The results are not scientifically rigorous (convenience-sampling, N=~50), but they do show some interesting trends.

Faculty and librarians both have a lot to learn about copyright. Across the more complex questions (usually something like "You want to make use X. Which of the following are relevant © considerations?"), both librarians and faculty got things right and wrong at similar rates. But as the table below shows, on all these complex questions, librarians were usually juuust a little more right than faculty.

Identification of Fair Use Considerations
(results from 3 different questions)
Textual Quotation
Mean, by Role Correctly ID'd issues
(correct positives)
(out of 8)
Incorrectly ID'd issues
(false positives)
(out of 2)
Missed issues
(false negatives)
(out of 5)
Library Employees (N=23) 3.26 .48 2.96
Faculty (N=28) 2.89 .57 2.93
Images on Conference Slides/Posters
Mean Score, by Role Correctly ID'd issues
(out of 9)
Incorrectly ID'd issues
(out of 1)
(out of 4)
Library Employees (N=21) 3.10 .33 2.52
Faculty (N=27) 2.19 .33 2.96
Posting Resources to Course Websites
Mean Score, by Role Correctly ID'd issues
(out of 8)
Incorrectly ID'd issues
(out of 2)
Missed issues
(out of 4)
Library Employees (N=20) 3.40 .75 2.50
Faculty (N=29) 3.24 .52 2.59

More importantly, on non-complex questions, such as how a copyright comes into existence, how long it lasts, and what happens when you transfer your copyrights to a publisher, library employees blew faculty out of the water chart showing library workers outperforming faculty on basic copyright knowledge

There's an old(er) piece of web content (dating back to 1997) entitled "Why you should fall to your knees and worship a librarian" Worship is a little stronger than what I'm advocating for here, and I'm not suggesting that librarians are the only or best source of information about copyright. But I am strongly suggesting that if a librarian has information to share with you about copyright, you might want to listen pretty closely.

ETA, 2/8/11: I'm not suggesting that librarians can provide formal legal advice about copyright issues, nor that all library workers do (or should) understand copyright inside and out. I am simply suggesting that someone who works in a library who tells you that they have copyright information to share is probably significantly better-informed than most non-lawyers, and probably has solid, relevant information. I am also suggesting that it is almost always a good idea to talk with a specialist attorney for actual legal advice about copyright, since it is a specialized area of law.

This post is my just-under-the-wire contribution to Library Day in the Life Project, Round 6 It's not quite in the standard order of the project, which is to show what a librarian's workday is actually like, but I'd like to think it fits the spirit of the project, which is to break up stereotypes about what librarians do and know.


Incentivizing creativity

Incentive to Create
Mimi & Eunice are by Nina Paley. She says ♡ Copying is an act of love. Please copy.

I agree that monetary incentives drive the creation of lots of content. I'll even admit that many works that are created solely due to profit motives are good! But the incentive story of copyright is a pretty limited, and limiting, view of human creativity. People create for so very many reasons - just for fun, out of love, venting rage, from passionate faith, exerting persuasion or control, expanding knowledge, for the sheer joy of creation - for all of these reasons at once, and many more besides.

Creative Commons-licensed hoto of a bee
Bee CC-BY Joost Witteveen
The mid-modern rhetoric of copyright - where the economic incentive language really took off - used to be largely implemented around, and in reference to, the works that were created primarily for the profit motive in the first place. But the expansion of the rights claimed by economically-incentivized owners has meant that the same rhetoric is increasingly invoked as universal. That's a problem for pretty much every public interest issue in copyright - if everyone buys the story that creation and expression are truly driven by compensation, it becomes easier to argue that all those users ought to be paying for the things they use. After all, if they didn't pay, the things they're using wouldn't exist! And if they're creating themselves, they're only doing it to get compensated themselves!

creative-commons-licensed page from a diary
Diary 0709 CC BY-ND Ales Motyl
Another note in this same tune is the argument that even if there are people who create for noneconomic reasons, their activities, while nice/pretty/admirable, are not as valuable because they don't create much in the way of economic good to society. I don't like to contribute to the "everything is economics" view of the world that prevails in a lot of legal discussion these days, but if ya'll insist, I'd just add: the existing system of expansive, automatic protection for all works is a LARGE PART of the reason that many of these works don't create much in the way of economic value.

Say an author finds a vacation snapshot in a shoebox somewhere that's the perfect illustration to her article on mid-20th century automobile culture in the U.S. Most publishers today would not let her use the photo in a book, for fear that someday, somewhere, the unidentified photographer who took that photo is going to surface and sue - for industrial-sized damages. And yet getting paid (or launching a decades-later copyright lawsuit) was unquestionably never on the mind of the photographer who clicked that shutter. By contrast, the contributors of all the illustrations in this post - many of whom also did not have compensation on their minds at the time of creation - having taken the extra step of Creative-Commons-licensing their works, have made them available for us all to use. Which creates value for us all (assuming, of course, that my blog has some value for us all...)

So much happens in the world of creative and expressive works that is not about compensation - we need to remember that, and push back on rhetoric that normalizes and universalizes industrial modes of creative production and sharing.

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2010 is the previous archive.

February 2011 is the next archive.

I'm Nancy Sims, the Copyright Program Librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Though I am a lawyer as well as a librarian, no content on this blog constitutes legal advice; if you need direct advice on your legal rights or responsibilities, please consult your own attorney. This blog represents only my own opinions and not those of my employer.

I'm @CopyrightLibn on Twitter.

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