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"Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations. Of all the institutions that purport to do this, free libraries stand virtually alone in accomplishing this mission" - Toni Morrison
With the exception of University counsel and Intellectual Property law professors, it is probably fair to say that there is no other group on university campuses that knows more about copyright law, particularly as applied in the higher education setting, than the university librarians. Although this may also have been the case in the past, the explosion of copyright law to the forefront of critical campus issues as a result of technological innovations, especially digitization and the internet, has vaulted the library community to the top of the copyright heap. Like it or not, the library's role in provision of access to and preservation of scholarly, copyrighted material has forced librarians to confront copyright issues of first impression earlier and more visibly than the population they serve. Indeed, the very existence of lending libraries stems directly from a provision in the Copyright Act.
It should be no surprise then that the overwhelming number of copyright educational web sites in the United States are created and maintained by the university librarians. Faculty and students are accustomed to asking librarians for educational help and guidance and the area of copyright is no exception.
Nearly every function of the library is touched by copyright to some degree. It is no wonder, then, that librarians have greater familiarity with a law that they interact with nearly every day in a meaningful way. For example, libraries are allowed to lend copyrighted materials that they own pursuant to §109 of the Copyright Act, otherwise known as the first sale doctrine. Section 108 is exclusively devoted to various functions of the library, including delineating the conditions under which libraries can make replacement copies, preservation copies, copies for patrons, copies for inter-library loan, and how to protect the library from liability for activities that take place on self-service reproduction equipment. The acquisitions department has had to evolve from a purchaser of print materials to savvy license negotiators of licenses for electronic journals and databases. Similarly, the reserves department, in moving from print reserves to electronic reserves encountered §107, the Fair Use doctrine and its application to digital online materials long before traditional classes moved to online classes. Special Collections face the question of what they can digitize, when those materials can be made available to the world, and how to handle orphan works. Hosting online blogs, wikis, and online reference services all raise copyright questions. Providing support for distance education students raise a host of other issues when the student is located in a rural area with inferior internet service. The questions and variations are nearly endless.
Librarians, through their powerful associations like the American Library Association (ALA), the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), the Special Libraries Association (SLA) and the Association of Law Libraries, have proven a worthy advocate in support of legislation that advances users' rights as well as a formidable opponent for laws that shrink the ability of copyright to achieve its primary purpose to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.
The next time you think of your librarian as someone who merely puts books on the shelves, shake yourself and think again.
Librarians aren't born knowing copyright, though, so the following information is intended to educate and inform those librarians new to the copyright aspect of their profession.