Getting the Right Measures: How Copyright Exceptions and Limitations are an Essential Ingredient for Successful Library Systems

In any recipe, you cannot just substitute one ingredient with more of another.

If you try to make a cake only with flour and milk, you get wallpaper paste. One made only of egg is a soufflé.

The same goes libraries and their work to support education, innovation and culture. A variety of ingredients is necessary, in the right proportions.

What ingredients are necessary for a flourishing library system?

Clearly nothing happens without investment. Libraries provide a public service, and have to be funded as such, with money for the space, resources and services their users need. It is increasingly clear that an open, high-quality internet connection is also essential.

They can also need other laws – for example those that give them a formal status, that allow them to acquire and keep books, or those that give them the responsibility to serve particular user groups, such as children or people with disabilities.

And of course they also benefit from a strong local publishing industry. In many countries, this is supported through grants to local authors and publishers, tax breaks, or subsidies for key infrastructure.

Without these, they cannot fulfil their missions.

Copyright provisions form part of this – both in terms of rights and exceptions.

Today’s creative economy is largely structured around copyright, which allows works – books, songs, images – to be treated like investment goods. This enables a certain business model which funnels resources from buyers to creators, allowing them to create their next work.

While movements such as Open Access rely less on copyright (the user does not need to pay for the right to read or use a work), it is still a fact of life, and libraries spend around $30bn a year on copyrighted works.

Without a major upheaval, copyright (or at least the purchase of rights from authors or other rightholders) seems likely to remain at the heart of the creative economy, and so the main way by which libraries can provide access to works for their users.

Exceptions and limitations are also necessary, firstly in order to cover uses which the market would not allow. For example, there is little if any commercial value in taking copies for preservation purposes.

The same goes for copying individual pages or chapters, or for using works for purposes which fall outside of normal market uses – for example showing a newspaper article in a media-literacy course, or taking copies for insurance purposes. This is particularly true for works which are simply not on sale at all, but still covered by copyright.

Secondly, they also help correct the excesses that monopoly powers can bring. The reason why monopolies in other areas are regulated is because otherwise they tend to lead to under-supply and over-pricing.

Libraries, thanks to exceptions and limitations, are able to ensure that everyone – and not just those with enough money to buy works themselves – are able to enjoy access to culture, innovation and education.

Of course these uses, under exceptions and limitations, cannot replace markets. Indeed, this would not even be possible under international law. At the same time, neither rights, nor spending, nor other laws can remove the need for exceptions and limitations themselves.

In the case of ongoing discussions about how to build stronger library systems around the world, both at the global and national levels, this remains a key point to remember. To succeed, we need a mixture of all approaches.


Read more about IFLA’s work at the World Intellectual Property Organisation to improve limitations and exceptions for libraries worldwide. Follow the livestream on the WIPO website.

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