Copyright and YOU! What’s the deal with the Copyright Office’s secret meetings?

A few weeks ago, Megan, goat queen of WWAC, drew my attention to a blog posted by the Internet Archive Blogs with the titleThe Copyright Office is trying to redefine libraries, but libraries don’t want it — Who is it for? My interest was piqued. I’m a librarian, and while it’s not my area of expertise, I care about copyright. Librarians, as a whole, care about copyright. It allows us to do our jobs and still provide access to information for patrons. So, when I see an article that asserts that Section 108 and maybe even fair use are being threatened, I’m going to do some investigating.

Before I go any further, let me explain as best I can–remember my expertise is YA love triangles and unicorn headband crafts–Section 108 and fair use. Section 108 of the U.S. Copyright law is the part that gives library exceptions for scholarship and preservation. The American Library Association put it this way: “Section 108 of the copyright law allows libraries and archives to reproduce and distribute one copy of a work under certain circumstances. For example, libraries may photocopy journal articles, book chapters, etc. and send these copies to other libraries through interlibrary loan. This section also allows libraries to make copies for preservation purposes.” In so many ways, this is what a lot of librarians do every day: Request journal articles through interlibrary loan, digitize unique and archival materials so they can be accessed by a wide audience for research and scholarship, and generally provide access to information.

Fair use is an allowance, for libraries and personal citizens, that lets you use copyrighted material on a day to day basis. It’s what lets you reproduce and cite a portion of a book–a small portion and not the “heart” of a work–in a paper for school. When I was studying music in college, fair use let me make a copy of a piece of music I was studying so I could mark it up and analyze it while leaving my book legible. Fair use says that you can use portions of a work, while referenced of course, for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.” It’s an important allowance and one that shouldn’t be tampered with.

What's going on in here, Library of Congress?
What’s going on in here, Library of Congress?

The Internet Archive Blogs doesn’t say what it is that the Copyright Office is looking to change about Section 108 and fair use. That’s because they’ve had closed door meetings and haven’t really disclosed what they are talking about. This really shouldn’t be! Governmental transparency is important, and The People need to know what is going on, because there is a lot at stake. Libraries and their patrons need to know what changes are being proposed so we can figure out how it would affect us! And as the Internet Archive Blogs and Tech Dirt ask, who is really asking for these changes?

It could be authors and other people who benefit from the sale–instead of the lending and current legal sharing–of resources of books and articles. Of course, authors, publishers, illustrators, and other content creators work hard on creating their art and so deserve to be paid for it. It’s possible that this is where the pressure is coming from to redefine and change Section 108. Copyright is important, I’m not saying that we should do away with it by any means, but libraries–places where you can access materials for free–booksellers, and writers can live in harmony. Copyright shouldn’t be getting in the way of that.

Of course, there will always be authors, like Terry Deary, who will say that libraries are “damaging the book industry” by giving away books for free. Deary, author of “over 200 books, selling over 25 million copies in over 40 languages,” surely is not struggling financially and doesn’t seem to understand that the sole point of writing is not to make bank. Sure it happens, Deary’s case in point, but it’s certainly the exception to the rule. Many authors write because they want to make art, to tell a story, and to express themselves. Making money is obviously necessary–everyone’s got to eat and pay those student loans–but art is also important.

To the authors who love libraries, thank you. Some authors understand that a reader who has free access to books can get passionate about books and reading in general. These readers become book lovers who borrow, buy, and devour books. Readers, whether reading through a library or buying their own books, support the publishing and book industry as a whole. Trust me, libraries are not trying to steal authors’ money and prevent them from making money. If authors don’t make money writing, we don’t get any new books! Libraries want to help protect your copyright, not trample all over it willy nilly, handing out bootleg copies of Maggie Stiefvater’s next novel. We want to buy lots of copies of those popular novels and make them available to patrons so they don’t search out the illegal, underground, black market ebooks. (This is a real problem, I swear.)

Libraries want to support scholars who need articles that are behind paywalls at their local library, but available at the university down the street. That university probably has more resources for academic journals, but may or may not allow public library patrons to use those resources. Libraries, and especially public libraries, have to design their collections around what their patrons and communities want and need. Unfortunately, that means that not every library can carry something like the International Journal of Dairy Technology–a real scientific journal–because maybe there aren’t a ton of dairy farmers in the area, or, as is often the case, journals and databases that index them are very expensive. A Wisconsin public library may have a lot of patrons who are dairy farmers, but University of Wisconsin-Madison subscribes. Patrons in rural Wisconsin who can’t physically get to Madison can request the articles they need through interlibrary loans systems.

At least the seal is cool, right?
At least the seal is cool, right?

Also, we want to be able to preserve unique and one of a kind items for future historians. Some items in libraries, and especially archives, are fragile and can’t be handled all that often. In order to use these interesting and unique items, a copy can be made for scholarship and research. Section 108, as it is currently written, and the fair use section of our copyright laws allow libraries to preserve their unique and archival collections while also providing access to materials.

It’s troubling that the Copyright Office is pursuing … whatever they are trying to pursue. It’s hard to tell because of those closed door meetings. The Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress (LOC). While the LOC has in recent years come under some fire for being out of touch and behind the times–for such problems as failing to see the importance of digitization and being overly ambitious about archiving ALL TWEETS without a clear plan on how to do that–it’s still supposed to be our main Library Authority for the U.S. Why can’t the LOC, and it’s currently rebellious child the Copyright Office, listen to the American Library Association, the Society of American Archivists, the Digital Public Library of American, and other esteemed professional groups who have an interest in preserving access for patrons? I’m don’t know, but it sure sounds shady as hell.

So, get it together Copyright Office and LOC! Remember that as government entities, you’re indebted and answerable to The People. We’re your patrons, and it’s our history and culture that we deserve to be able to access.

Anna Tschetter

Anna Tschetter

Anna is a teen librarian North of Boston. She runs, sews, eats cookies, and is so obnoxious she names all of her D&D characters after 19th century New England whaling families. Tweetsies: @lcarslibrarian