Copyrights and Library Resources: Two Sides of the Same Coin

So much library advocacy is about funding – ensuring that our institutions have the support necessary to carry out their missions. This can be more or less explicit, from directly campaigning for stable or increased budgets, to working to ensure libraries are featured in wider policy plans which provide the basis for allocating resources later.

This work is vital. Its impact is also relatively simple to demonstrate. Without funding, there cannot be professional librarians, equipment, adequate buildings or collections. With it, there can be longer opening hours, new computers and books, more staff.

Compare this with advocacy around copyright. This can immediately seem like a much more complicated goal, involving concepts and terminology which are some way away from the everyday life not only of the targets of advocacy, but also of librarians themselves. Decisions are taken at the national level – often in a faraway capital – or beyond, not in local town and city halls.

Even outside of advocacy, copyright as an issue is often simply left to the experts. In libraries, often enough, one person (if anyone at all) ends up with the responsibility of answering questions, while in government, it is a subject for the lawyers, unlikely ever to win or lose elections. It can feel like a minority concern.

So far, so far apart. But as this blog argues, these two subjects for advocacy are in fact not so distant from each other, but, as the title suggests, are rather two sides of the same coin.


It’s not (just) what you’ve got, it’s what you can do with it that counts

This is because, in short, copyright laws can have a major impact both on libraries’ spending power, and on the ‘return’ on the investments they make.

Clearly, using such economic vocabulary may feel a little odd, as of course libraries do not make a financial return on their acquisitions. However, thinking more broadly about the impact that libraries aim to deliver – stronger education, research and access to culture – we can still think about how much progress they can make towards these goals for every dollar, euro or yen spent.

One of the most direct examples is around eBooks, where the lack of regulation means that rather than buying eBooks at a consumer rate, libraries are often obliged to buy more expensive copies. There can also be limits on the number of times a library can lend a single book out, or the length of time for which it can lend it.

These facts combine to risk meaning that libraries end up paying much more for every single loan of an eBook than they would for a physical book, or, in other words, get far fewer loans of a book for every dollar, euro or yen spent. This obviously limits the possibility for libraries to deliver on their missions to support literacy and a love of reading, as well as to give access to a diverse range of content.

Copyright can also affect libraries’ ability to give access to other types of work. A key issue during the Pandemic has been the barrier copyright represents for libraries in many countries to digitise the physical works in their collection and give access to them remotely. In effect, during the pandemic, this leaves libraries unable to realise the potential of their collections to support education, research and access to culture.

Outside of the pandemic, these same restrictions on digitisation and remote access mean that libraries cannot realise their potential to give access to people who may not be able to travel to visit collections in person. In effect, out-of-date or overly restrictive copyright laws mean that libraries cannot realise their mission to reach out to all members of the communities they serve.

Similarly, in the research space, text and data mining (TDM) offers strong possibilities to accelerate research and scientific progress. Once again, however, the ability of libraries to allow researchers to carry out TDM will depend on whether copyright law allows this, and subsequent activities, such as sharing results. Without the right laws, libraries can offer less for the money invested in them.

A final example – libraries invest considerable effort in the preservation of works in their collections. Yet this, like many other aspects of library work, faces pressure to demonstrate impact. Being able to make preserved works available online can be a great way of doing this. Yet again, copyright can stand in the way, reducing the ability of libraries to show their own value, and so potentially risking funding.

As set out above, in short, library funding and copyright are two sides of the same coin – a library with a generous budget still risks having less reach and impact (putting this budget at risk) if copyright laws do not allow it to make full use of works.


Complementary Advocacy Strategies

It follows from the above that a comprehensive library advocacy strategy needs to include both advocacy for funding and, where laws are creating problems, advocacy on copyright.

Clearly these can require different sets of knowledge, and work at different levels. Clearly, the atmosphere can also sometimes be different, with copyright reform discussions sometimes more adversarial, although with the right people and a readiness to talk and find areas of agreement. Moreover, it can be uncomfortable for those opposing you to be seen as ‘anti-library’.

However, there is also much in common. Writing to a local government councillor to ask for sustained or increased funding is just as simple as writing to a national senator, deputy or member of parliament. Both require the ability to build up links with decision-makers, creating confidence and understanding.

Crucially, the goal is the same – effective library services in a position to support education, research and access to culture for all of their communities. The same materials, and often the same arguments can be used for both.

It is therefore important for libraries to ensure that, in evaluating their current situation and determining advocacy priorities lie, to think about both funding and laws in order to make the best case for libraries.