“But I don’t Speak Legalese…”: What Other Perspectives Can Tell Us about Copyright Exceptions?

Copyright can easily seem scary. One reason for this is the fact that so much discussion on the subject is highly legalistic. There are intense debates about individual articles, sub-articles, or even sub-sub-articles, and an abundance of terminology and technicality that understandably puts a lot of people off.

This is neither desirable or inevitable though. Perhaps more than any other intellectual property right, copyright affects us all.

We can all be (and likely are all) copyright holders. But we are all also liable to be in situations where we , and are also more likely to be in situations where there is a risk of infringement. It is particularly important for libraries, with the balance of rights and exceptions defining what a library can do for its users.

So this blog goes beyond the purely legal perspective, and suggests some other ways in which libraries – and others – can think about copyright laws, from an economic, a consumer protection, a social justice and a psychological point of view.


Economics: the economic perspective focuses on resource allocation, and in particular how to do this in a way that leads to the greatest overall benefits, now and in the long-term. It recognises the fact that monopolies such as copyright can be necessary in order to recoup investments and incentivise further creation.

However, it also underlines that monopolies in general tend to lead to an under-supply of works and excessive pricing as producers seek to maximise profits. This leads to negative consequences (‘externalities’), such as people missing out on the possibility to use works for learning or research. The producer does not bear these costs of course, as these fall to the user.

Exceptions and limitations, in economic terms, therefore serve as a means of correcting these problems, and ensuring that the interests of consumers are taken into account, alongside those of producers.


Consumer Protection: taking the wellbeing of end-users as a starting point, people involved in consumer protection focus on how to ensure that the comparatively weak position of individuals vis-à-vis companies does not end up being used against them.

While classical economics assumes that people are perfectly rational and fully informed, this is far from often the case. They often have little time, and may not completely understand what they are being offered. Faced with a much larger company with access to lawyers, they may have little – or no – chance to negotiate.

Exceptions and limitations, especially when protected from override by contracts, serve as a tool for protecting the rights of consumers in using works to which they have legitimate access.


Social Justice: the idea behind social justice approaches is the idea that everyone should be able to enjoy a decent standard of living, and realise their potential. Social justice advocates worry that money – and other barriers – can prevent this, locking-in privilege and disadvantage.

Copyright of course applies regardless of how much money a creator has, although it is true that those with more resources are usually better able to exploit it (for example by hiring rights managers).

As for exceptions and limitations, where these exist, they also benefit everyone, but proportionately are more important for those who rely on libraries to access and make use of books and other materials. For example, whereas rich students may be able to buy all of the books they need, a poorer one needs the library in order to complete their studies.


Psychological: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, laws are most effective (and most respected) when they are understood and supported by people. This also has advantages in terms of reducing enforcement costs.

At least in Western cultures, the broad idea of copyright is understood, as is the importance of supporting the work of creators. However, people also expect that once they have paid money for a book or other work, they should be able to choose what they do with it, at least within their private space.

The same goes for librarians or teachers, for example, who are simply pursuing their missions to support education, research or the preservation of the past. Copyright exceptions are what allow the law to make sense for them.


It is clear that there are a number of ways of looking at copyright, with different disciplines offering different angles. The ones above underline the importance of the sort of non-commercial exceptions that libraries rely on. It’s clear that copyright itself is a question of law, its design cannot only be left to the lawyers.