Why you should listen to librarians about copyright

A librarian colleague recently sent out an announcement about the UM Libraries’ copyright workshops to faculty in one of the departments she works with. One of the faculty members responded to my colleague by suggesting that such educational
opportunities would be more valuable for her, as a member of the faculty, if they were conducted by someone who “really knows about copyright, like an attorney.” This is not the first time I’ve had someone (almost always a faculty member) suggest librarians aren’t a “real” source of information about copyright.

©Libn, angry.
CC BY Matt Baxter

This makes me angry – but not on my own behalf. I have a J.D. and an attorney license I can wave at people who are this hung up on credentials.

This makes me angry on behalf of my colleagues (MLS-accredited librarians and beyond), many of whom are far more qualified to discuss copyright with a faculty member than many attorneys. Here are some reasons why:

1. A lot of lawyers don’t know much about copyright

I got an email the other day from a classmate who took a course in copyright law with me asking if he could just copy images from other websites onto his blog, because you can just use things that are online, right? Dude (who shall remain nameless) is a practicing attorney. And very very wrong about a basic issue in copyright.

The standard law school curriculum never goes anywhere near copyright. Even “IP overview” classes usually spend a lot more time on patent and trademark than on copyright, although that’s changing at many schools. Almost all attorneys have a baseline knowledge in contract, property, criminal law, and other standard subjects. But they do not have such knowledge of copyright. And copyright is a pretty complicated area of law. It’s in the professional ethics code (see CA ethics code) that attorneys can get themselves up to speed on unfamiliar areas of law in order to represent clients, but I would not want to be represented by a generalist on anything more than a very basic copyright issue.

There are some attorneys that specialize in copyright, or practice a lot in the area. They will have much better knowledge and advice than generalists.

2. Librarians get context

Librarians understand the structures of knowledge and information. Few copyright specialist attorneys have extensive experience with academic publishing, but academic librarians – they have an amazing view of the whole system and life-cycle of scholarly publishing. While I can’t speak as broadly about my public librarian and special librarian colleagues, I know they, too, have amazing understandings of how information, knowledge, and culture interrelate.

3. Librarians just know a lot about copyright

This fall, I did some research into what UM faculty (and lecturers and researchers) and library employees understand about copyright. The results are not scientifically rigorous (convenience-sampling, N=~50), but they do show some interesting trends.

Faculty and librarians both have a lot to learn about copyright. Across the more complex questions (usually something like “You want to make use X. Which of the following are relevant © considerations?”), both librarians and faculty got things right and wrong at similar rates. But as the table below shows, on all these complex questions, librarians were usually juuust a little more right than faculty.

Identification of Fair Use Considerations
(results from 3 different questions)
Textual Quotation
Mean, by Role Correctly ID’d issues
(correct positives)
(out of 8)
Incorrectly ID’d issues
(false positives)
(out of 2)
Missed issues
(false negatives)
(out of 5)
Library Employees (N=23) 3.26 .48 2.96
Faculty (N=28) 2.89 .57 2.93
Images on Conference Slides/Posters
Mean Score, by Role Correctly ID’d issues
(out of 9)
Incorrectly ID’d issues
(out of 1)
(out of 4)
Library Employees (N=21) 3.10 .33 2.52
Faculty (N=27) 2.19 .33 2.96
Posting Resources to Course
Mean Score, by Role Correctly ID’d issues
(out of 8)
Incorrectly ID’d issues
(out of 2)
Missed issues
(out of 4)
Library Employees (N=20) 3.40 .75 2.50
Faculty (N=29) 3.24 .52 2.59

More importantly, on non-complex questions, such as how a copyright comes into existence, how long it lasts, and what happens when you transfer your copyrights to a publisher, library employees blew faculty out of the water

chart showing library workers outperforming faculty on basic copyright knowledge

There’s an old(er) piece of web content (dating back to 1997) entitled “Why you should fall to your knees and worship a librarian” Worship is a little stronger than what I’m advocating for here, and I’m not suggesting that librarians are the only or best source of information about copyright. But I am strongly suggesting that if a librarian has information to share with you about copyright, you might want to listen pretty closely.

ETA, 2/8/11: I’m not suggesting that librarians can provide formal legal advice about copyright issues, nor that all library workers do (or should) understand copyright inside and out. I am simply suggesting that someone who works in a library who tells you that they have copyright information to share is probably significantly better-informed than most non-lawyers, and probably has solid, relevant information. I am also suggesting that it is almost always a good idea to talk with a specialist attorney for actual legal advice about copyright, since it is a specialized area of law.

This post is my just-under-the-wire contribution to Library Day in the Life Project, Round 6 It’s not quite in the standard order of the project, which is to show what a librarian’s workday is actually like, but I’d like to think it fits the spirit of the project, which is to break up stereotypes about what librarians do and know.

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  1. You are 100% right. I am also a JD/MLS and work at a law school – I help a lot of professors and I have yet to have one bring up copyright as an issue when we are talking about creating powerpoint presentations and other content.

    1. Thanks for the reinforcement! To be fair, law profs have one of the better practical excuses for ignoring copyright in their own uses – unlike most other higher-ed instructors, copyright is nearly-irrelevant in most law classrooms, and in profs’ access to the research in their field. A large chunk of relevant resources (statutes, opinions) are federal gov’t works, for one thing. But even more so, they all get unlimited access to Westlaw & Lexis (as do all their students) without cost to their campuses. So they can just give students citations & have them get the articles in one easy-to-access location. (A lot of this was recently pointed out to me by William McGeveran, a UM Law prof who blogs at Info/Law.)

      Does this realistically excuse them from not noticing copyright issues in their own uses? Nooo. Most of them actually are lawyers. But as I said, for non-specialist lawyers, copyright is usually not an area of major interest.

  2. Oh… but I’m not just talking about giving citations or showing brief bits in class. I’m talking about entire course packets made up of copyrighted works and conference presentations filled with copyrighted images. They just. Don’t. Think about it.

    1. Yeah, most people really don’t! (I think Law faculty in particular don’t think about copying articles in coursepacks because they don’t have to think about it with caselaw and statutes…)
      One of the challenges of my education work is trying to help folks recognize when they _should_ be thinking about ©, without scaring them into believing they have to ask permission and/or pay for every use! I route around uncertainty in my conference presentations (or on this blog), for instance, by using mostly Creative Commons and public domain images. But I do play videos, music, and show pictures that _are_ under copyright – I just do it knowing the implications of my use. 🙂

  3. Thanks for posting this. The nature of the information professional job means that we are often put on the spot and required to make quick decisions on matters which are not necessarily our area of expertise. Copyright issues come up time and time again in my job (I’m digitizing and cataloging items from a non-profit’s archive). As a result, I’ve had to become fluent in copyright law.

  4. What is sad is the academic world sees the MLS as a trade degree and is not worth much to them. Of course they love us when they need us but they do not see us as scholars and further more they fail to see us as peers. We are the hired help, we are their to help them to clean up after the big parties, we are providers of information, we can assist the show but not never do we get a lead. We can an advantage when we have other degrees to back up our MLS.


  5. As a middle school librarian I put together a presentation for my faculty about how copyright affects what they and their students do and it was gratifying to see the light bulbs go on across the room. Since then the faculty and students in general are more aware of what they do with copyrighted material, and are more likely to ask when they are not sure instead of just barreling ahead without thinking about it. While there is a school district attorney, this is not really someone to turn to for copyright information so the librarian is the natural person to be informed even without a law degree.

  6. Amen, and thanks for this post, which reiterates a message I have also shared with faculty ad nauseum. As a librarian lacking a JD, I am in that camp you are defending here. In recent years I have spent many hours reading both legal texts and analyses on the copyright laws of three different nations, and have found–as you point out–that lawyers often know next to nothing about copyright.

    I might, however, add that I have often witnessed librarians giving horrible advice on copyright. These librarians could be categorized as risk-averse types who counsel people to adhere to what the media industries would prefer that we do with their products. Example: in an email discussion among scholars recently, one cited an email from her librarian where said librarian had essentially deemed a particular use of a text in no way to be fair use, when by even the most industry-friendly reading of fair use it clearly was. We have an obligation as a profession (my opinion) to act as a moral counterweight to those who pursue the restriction of user rights, and while as you point out many librarians know a ton about copyright, we should be more aggressive in keeping up and expanding our knowledge.

  7. Wonderful article, so close to our reality.
    I often get copyright-related questions from students,colleagues, and patrons at large.Thanks to [product plug] I participated in,I manage to give them full answers. [Removed further product plug.]

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