Libraries are not anti-copyright. No, really.

I am a co-signatory on a letter sent today to the heads of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, who have expressed interest in updating/tinkering with current US copyright law. Among other suggestions, they are interested in removing the Copyright Office from the Library of Congress. This is a valid policy position, but many advocates for this position uncharitably characterize librarians as having no respect for creators (sometimes, bafflingly, because we are all just Google shills(?!?!???)). Even many of the more charitable advocates frame the discussion by explaining that copyright and libraries are inherently in tension, especially because libraries are about providing free public access to information and cultural materials.

That’s weird.

I thought -copyright- was about increasing the publicly-accessible stock of information and cultural materials.

Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8

Even if you don’t agree with my reading of the Constitution’s intellectual property clause, and take the purpose of copyright as only about securing benefits to authors and creators, there are SO MANY things libraries do that benefit authors and creators. Here’s a few:

  1. We buy content.
    (Holy crap, do we buy content. We get portrayed as being all about copying without permission, when even small public libraries spend thousands of dollars each year, buying content.)
  2. We connect content with audiences.

    [D]on’t ever apologise to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that’s what they’re there for. Use your library). Don’t apologise to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read…”
    ― Neil Gaiman

  3. We help creators with logistics.
    I cannot count the number of people to whom I have explained a) that they already own copyrights in their works and b) that registration may be beneficial anyway (and how to register.)
    I also consult a lot with people who want to both share stuff online -and- control its use, and so I spend a lot of time both helping people figure out ways to -maybe- do that successfully, but also advising them that that is, practically speaking, almost impossible, so it may be to their benefit to sometimes not share.
  4. We help people who are making new stuff out of old stuff (as ALMOST EVERYONE making new stuff is)
    And by “help”, I mean: provide access to existing materials that are the building blocks of scholarly and artistic creativity, and help new creators understand how they can legally use existing stuff.
    I once had someone on a committee I was on tell me, to my face, that we do not tell users about getting permission and legal open content, or that what they may be able to do as students is not the same as what they may be able to do in business, and I was just, like, “um… here’s some links from my workshops… and from our media services librarian teaching students how to legally make videos… and here’s our Copyright Permissions Service where UMN-affiliates can get help with permissions for zero fee paid to the Libraries even though we pay the salaries of the AWESOME staff who run the service…”

Please do read the letter (written with more eloquence than I can muster) where these issues are addressed in more detail.

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    1. That is a common way of framing it in cases where the focus is on the “promote the progress of science…” parts of the IP clause.

      Also, thanks for the link; hadn’t seen that, and it sounds like a case I should read!

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