Why Do Libraries Care about Copyright Reforms?

By Jessica Coates, Copyright Adviser, Australian Libraries Copyright Commitee, and member of the IFLA CLM Network

As we continue the good fight for copyright reform, it isn’t uncommon to be asked – why would libraries get involved with something so political?

But the truth is, in the debates surrounding copyright reform internationally, libraries have for decades been one of the most consistent voices. In fact, in pre-internet days, before the rise of intermediaries, social media and Silicon Valley, librarians and teachers were often the only voices you could find to argue against expansion of copyright.

Copyright advocacy relates directly to our core values as librarians – free flow of information and ideas through open access to recorded knowledge, information, and creative works.  We truly believe that knowledge has the power to transform lives. This core value aligns closely to Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which establishes the right of access to information for all human beings (amongst others). But sometimes copyright gets in the way of this ideal.

As hubs for culture and learning, libraries have a better understanding than most that copyright has two sides – it needs to take into account both the rights of creators to make decisions about their creations, and the rights of citizens to access knowledge. There are several reasons why this balance is particularly important to librarians.

First, there is the most obvious reason – practicality. Overly strict copyright can and does present a significant barrier to librarians doing their jobs. The defaults of international copyright law are set to maximum protection – in most systems, every act of copying is illegal unless it has been made legal through a legislative exception or with written permission from the copyright owner. This applies even to the fundamental activities of libraries, including preservation of cultural materials and supplying material for library users and researchers.

For most libraries, permissions are so impractical as to be impossible – the national collections of Australia, for example, have hundreds of kilometres of unpublished manuscripts, most of which have no known or contactable author. For these and other ‘orphan’ works, permissions are not an option. So that just leaves exceptions.

The digital revolution has only made matters worse. Where once conservation was the main game for many institutions – fighting against the ravages of age on pages and films, modern technologies mean that any institution with even an ounce of resources now focuses on digitally preserving as much as their collection as possible, so that the content remains available even as the object itself declines. And digital preservation requires copying. In a similar vein, where once supplying to a client meant getting a book from the stacks or perhaps mailing it to their local library, it now more often than not means scanning and emailing. Or better yet, pro-actively reaching out to the public through online digital archives and exhibitions.

Thus new technologies have vastly increased the reach of libraries and their ability to meet the needs of even the most isolated members of the public. But it has also put them head to head with copyright laws that tend to assume that any copying without permission – even if non-commercial, private or in the public interest – is unjustified.

And so librarians have pushed for balance – and in most (but not all) countries won – reasonable exceptions to let them do their job. Exceptions for preservation, for the provision of material to researchers, to make older and inaccessible material available online, to run exhibitions. Or flexible exceptions broad enough to cover all these activities.

But exceptions for libraries only do half the job. What is the point in libraries spending millions of dollars getting their collections online, if those collections can be used for little other than passive reading? This is why librarians have also long been strong advocates for the rights of others – researchers, teachers, their clients, creators – to be able to make reasonable use of the materials they provide them. Australia’s amazing Trove resource makes over 18.5 million pages from the national collection of newspapers from the first newspaper published in 1803 to selected titles from the 1980’s available online for anyone to see. But at the moment it’s illegal for the public to do much beyond reading these – family historians can’t legally use snippets of them in blog posts, academics can’t reproduce them in published papers, and authors can’t quote them in books – without the author’s permission.

Librarians of course love creators and want to support them to achieve as much financial success as they can – librarians and creators are part of the same eco system which facilitates access to knowledge and ideas. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a librarian who didn’t start as a book-geek, reading themselves to sleep every night, and libraries spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on new book purchases, e-resources, subscriptions etc. But they also recognise that an academic quoting 3 lines from a letter to a famous figure is not going to cause financial hardship to a creator or rights holder. They see that the rights of authors, important though they are, need to be balanced against the public goods of free speech and access to knowledge. And yes, even the rights of other creators, so that future authors can build on the past, and our cultural lives aren’t smothered by laws that only look at part of the picture.

This is why around the world you’ll find librarians at the forefront of advocacy for more reasonable and flexible copyright exceptions. They are fighting for the rights of us all – to access and use the knowledge and culture that surrounds us.

2 Responses to “Why Do Libraries Care about Copyright Reforms?”

  • Hi. I’m rather puzzled by your statement regarding digitised materials in Trove, that “authors can’t quote them in books – without the author’s permission”.

    Is it really the case that you need express permission from an author of published material to quote it?

  • Well said, Jessica! Libraries are about empowering communities to access information. Librarians are the gatekeepers of that information and understand the importance of allowing their community to access this information, not keeping it locked up in a dark vault. Copyright is about economic incentive to create new material. If copyright prevents us from sharing idea and how they are expressed, this will stifle a community and prevent it from flourishing. I’m all for sharing information.

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