Copyright 101

by Chealsye Bowley

The class I want to see in every MLS/MLIS program is Copyright 101. Want to be a reference librarian? Copyright will impact your job. Want to be an archivist and build digital collections? Copyright will impact your job. Want to be a School Library Media specialist? Copyright will impact your job. Seeing a pattern here? Copyright touches all aspects of librarianship. It governs how we can share information. Whether for protecting the rights of the library or patrons, or determining how we can make our collections available, copyright knowledge can benefit all librarians.

I got a small glimpse of copyright law in my Introduction to Information Policy course and decided I needed to know more. This semester I enrolled in the Copyright Law through the FSU College of Law. Through this class I gained familiarity with both statutory law and legislative history, discussed the Georgia State case, and had class an hour after the Kirstsaeng decision dropped. No class in graduate school has better prepared me to be a librarian, and it wasn’t even a library school class!

CC BY NC SA, Erik J. Heels,
CC BY NC SA, Erik J. Heels,

The basics

Copyright is a legal concept that grants authors exclusive rights over their works for defined periods of time. Copyright owners have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, make derivative works, and publicly perform or display their works.

The idea of copyright has existed for hundreds of years. It has been put through multiple variations, originating as a type of censorship, and growing into a law meant to protect and incentivize authors and artists. Currently, in the United States, we operate under the Copyright Act of 1976. The 1976 Act originally provided protection to authors for the author’s lifetime plus 50 years and 75 years for corporate authorship. In 1998, protection was extended to life plus 75 years, or 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication for works of corporate authorship.

Woah. That’s a long time. So, what are our options to legally use materials, as librarians and individuals, before copyright expires? Get permission or qualify for fair use.

Fair use

Fair use is a right outlined in Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976. The following outlines the four factors of fair use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

Now, it is important to note that just because a library is a non-profit doesn’t mean that use is automatically fair, and simply acknowledging source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission. The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement is not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. It can get pretty complicated. You want to be careful in order to avoid being liable for copyright infringement.

In 2008, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University press, and SAGE Publications  filed suit against four officers of Georgia State University for “pervasive, flagrant and ongoing unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials” through the library’s e-reserve system. Of the 75 cases of alleged infringement, Judge Evans held that five were infringement. The rest were fair use or the use was too minimal. A rule of thumb developed from the case that 10% or less of a book, or a chapter, was fair use. However, the case is currently being appealed and there isn’t a standard number for fair use. This is a prime example of how copyright law can impact libraries and how important it is for librarians to have some training in the law.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. Creative Commons provides easy to use licenses that work alongside copyright and enable an author to modify their copyright terms to best suit their needs. These licenses allow authors to tell tell others what they are allowed and not allowed to do with their protected work. These licenses allow for the greatest legal dissemination before public domain, and are very useful for authors who want to openly share their work.

Currently, the organization provides the following six licenses:


This blog post is copyrightable. As an author, I own what I create from the moment I create it. There is no requirement to register it with the copyright office. Let’s be kind to me and say I die at the wonderful age of 100 in 2090. This means this post is protected until 2160. Normally you would need my permission use my work, but thankfully Hack Library School uses a CC BY NC SA license. This means you can use this post or any other posts on the blog in any way as long as it is for non-commercial use, you attribute the author, and share your product under the same license. Awesome, right?

Interested in learning more?

  • Read the Copyright Act of 1976! It isn’t scary as it sounds and you’ll learn a lot.
  • Go listen to Lawrence Lessig’s TED talk on the “Re-Examining the Remix.” Lessig is Harvard law professor and a founding board member of Creative Commons.
  • Look over the basics of Copyright handout from the United States Copyright Office.
  • Check out the Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s Copyright for Librarians course.
  • Learn more about the Georgia State case. The GSU Law School has put together a great libguide that provides a timeline and a compilation of blogs and court opinions.
  • Keep a lookout for future copyright law MOOCs. Earlier this year, Harvard offered a free online copyright law course for 500 people through edX.


The HLS Guide to Library School Copyright © 2013 by Compiled by The Hack Library School Team. All Rights Reserved.


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