I recently took a course on copyright law. A number of the questions that came up during the course could not be answered with a simple yes or no; often the answer was “in this circumstance, you should talk to a lawyer.” The course made it clear that there are many misconceptions about copyright. For example, several people taking the course believed that you could freely use copyrighted materials if you were not profiting from your use of these materials.
The copyright questions that librarians have to wrestle with often fall into the grey areas of copyright law. As a result librarians tend to take a very conservative approach to copying materials. In some situations, I have talked to a publisher just to clarify whether a given use was acceptable. At work we include a field in the library catalogue indicating what an item’s copyright status is so that both the library staff and users are aware.
The trouble with taking a conservative approach to copyright law is that it results in unnecessary restrictions. One organization that my library uses for interlibrary loan will not send PDF copies of material for copyright reasons; instead the copies must be faxed to us.
A conservative approach to copyright can also prevent users from accessing materials in the public domain. Take, for example, HathiTrust, an initiative to provide “long-term preservation and access services for public domain and in copyright content from a variety of sources“. Unfortunately for Canadians, HathiTrust limits what can be accessed by users outside the United States for copyright reasons, so even though an item is in the public domain in Canada, it may not be accessible on HathiTrust. This is frustrating given that Canadian copyright law is currently lifetime plus 50, as opposed to lifetime plus 70 in the United States.
Electronic databases also have their challenges. The licence for an electronic resource may place greater restrictions on use than what would otherwise be allowed under copyright law, so licence agreements should be read carefully. (For this reason in my library we keep a binder of licence agreements for easy reference.)
Fortunately the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL) has taken an active role with regards to copyright in law libraries. In 2012 Mary Hemmings, then the Chair of CALL’s Copyright Committee, spoke to the Legislative Committee on Bill C-11 about the Copyright Modernization Act. She emphasized the importance of users being able to “reproduce federal legislation for personal, non-commercial uses” and urged the government “not to restrict the public’s right to access what should be in the public domain.”
Crown copyright is a good example of a situation in which there is little benefit in restricting use. Legislation, both federal and provincial, should be freely available, and any limitations on their use should be clearly communicated. There was a non-commercial licence for government materials on the federal Public Works and Government Services website, but in 2013 it disappeared. Users now have to contact the department or agency that created the information directly to request copyright clearance: a step backwards.
While it is important that content creators are fairly compensated fairly for their work, copyright law should not be penalizing users when there is no corresponding benefit to copyright holders. Clearer copyright law benefits both creators and consumers. Alas, it seems unlikely that the current copyright regime is going to get simpler any time soon.