Tag Archives: limitations and exceptions

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.

“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.