RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Dissertations - 6/13/2017
We’ve recently had some questions regarding the ability to provide access to dissertations, ...
Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2017 Permalink


We’ve recently had some questions regarding the ability to provide access to dissertations, theses, and other cataloged graduate work.  How does the law govern these questions?


Many college and university libraries make it a practice to bind and inventory the academic work of their graduates—a tradition that showcases the achievements of the institution, maintains an important bond between the library and the faculty (who often sign the final copy, to signify approval), and allows graduates to cite and showcase their work.  These collections are often honored institutional assets: a neatly reproduced, annually increased, and routinely cataloged series of books occupying a special space in the library.

(When a graduate later becomes famous, they can also pose a persistent and annoying theft risk…but that is not the topic at hand!)

With the dawn of the digital age now at high noon, some college and university libraries are also including these home-grown works in home-grown databases.  This requires a digital infrastructure that not all academic libraries can afford or support, though, so for many, the old-school binding and shelving of graduate work is still the default practice.  Many institutions are now also considering whether or not to digitize their back catalog, and of course are also seeking ways to promote, provide and oversee appropriate patron access to what they have.  

Overall, these “old school” copies can pose an interesting access challenge.  They are generally listed in the library’s catalog, and considered a part of the active collection.  But what rights does the institution have to them?  How is access to them governed by copyright law, which often depends on the distinction between “published” and “unpublished?”  Can they circulate, be accessed via inter-library loan, be reproduced for archival purposes, or be digitized?  How much can the original author—now an alum—control them?

To answer this, I must use the phrase that is the lawyer’s most trusted companion: it depends.

We’ll take the relevant factors in order of appearance:

First, it is important to confirm: the work of a student, even if directed and overseen by a faculty member or faculty committee, is owned by that student.  Student-generated work*, even if the topic was suggested by someone else, and even if the content is vigorously critiqued by someone else (and then presumably re-written), is an “original work of authorship,” and the moment it is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” it is owned by the author (the author).   Of course, the student can sell the ownership, or donate it—but unless that transfer has been recorded in writing, it remains theirs…and then their heir’s…for the life of the author, plus 70 years.**

Second, generally, the permission to reproduce the academic work is a creature of a contract between the author (the student) and the institution (the college or university).  This permission can run the range from a completely unlimited license of all the rights of copyright (to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, create derivative works), to a very limited license (to make one hard copy and add it to the catalog).  This permission might be revocable, or irrevocable.  It might be exclusive, or non-exclusive.  It could even make use of Creative Commons licenses to create a very liberal mode of access.  Critically, though…these terms can vary from institution to institution, from year to year, from student to student.  There is no bright line rule.

Third, depending on the extent of the license, and other factors, the thesis or dissertation may, or may not, be “published,” as that term is defined under the Copyright Code. The ability to replicate, digitize, and create archive copies under Section 108 will be governed, in part, by publication status.  Section 108 is a great asset for libraries and archives, often allowing duplication of entire articles and works…but it requires the well-documented alignment of precise factors.  [NOTE: A copyright registration that included the date of publication would take care of this factor.  Some institutions and authors do register these works…and if they are put in the catalog for lending, registration should be effected before circulation begins, since to do otherwise could compromise the author’s rights]. 

Fourth, and finally, the policies of the college or university will govern access, too.  There could even be a day when an aged alum, having lost their treasured copy, may show up demand access to the library’s…only to be told that although they are without a doubt the copyright owner, they have to fill out a form, or renew their card, or wait until the Reference Librarian is back from break, so they can access their work. 

That said, they are the only one who might not have to do a 108 analysis before making a copy!

*Work that is actually co-authored by a faculty member and a student is subject to the rules of co-ownership.

**As you know, copyright duration varies.  A great breakdown of how to calculate duration is here: https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ15a.pdf

Tags: Copyright, Photocopies, Dissertations and Theses, Section 108, Work-for-Hire, Digitization and Copyright

Topic: Ownership of Employee Created Materials - 5/25/2017
At a recent WNYLRC webinar, we discussed the ownership of materials generated by library staff.&nb...
Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2017 Permalink


At a recent WNYLRC webinar, we discussed the ownership of materials generated by library staff.  Who owns the massive amount of original work generated by an active, engaged library staff?


The answer is: it depends. 

Let’s start with the fundamentals:

FIRST:  Copyright vests the moment an original work is fixed in a “tangible medium of expression.”  Trademark is established through either registration or use on the marketplace.  Patent can protect useful articles and unique business operations.  Trade secret law can protect confidential  information that gives your institution a unique edge.   What does this mean?  It means that the e-mails, presentations, displays, unique business solutions, archive collections and other valuable work-product generated by library staff are all assets that can be owned.

SECOND:  Unless there is a contract, policy, or other express documentation to the contrary, an employer owns the copyright to any work produced by an employee as part of the scope of their employment (this is one of the reasons why it is always important to ensure staff have updated job descriptions).  For trademark, patent, and trade secret, similar rules may apply.  Be warned…if not set out clearly, this “express documentation” can take many forms: it can be buried in a union contract, can be inferred from a hire letter, or might even be derived from a habitual business practice.  For both the library and its employees, there should be a clear policy.

THIRD:  Not only copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret law governs the control of employee work-product.  The ethics of the profession may influence ownership.  If your library serves a particular industry, like education or healthcare, the work-product is controlled by privacy regulations.    It is important that the initial ownership arrangement between the library and its employees consider the other terms that may govern the work product, and it is critical that any policy reinforce the obligation to safeguard certain information. 

So how does a library set up to ensure it owns the valuable work product it pays its staff to produce, but doesn’t encroach on the employees’ right to generate their own intellectual property when not at work?  As more and more people “work from home,” use their own laptops, and may even compose work product on their cell phones, it couldn’t be more important to observe the following:

A carefully considered policy on employee work product.  This policy should be harmonized with the ethics and mission of the institution, its policy on employee use of technology, and its regulatory compliance obligations.  This does not have to be extensive; just a few clear, concise paragraphs in the Employee Handbook. 

Clear hire letters and routinely updated job descriptions.   Remember, in order to determine if something was created as part of an employee’s “scope of employment,” both parties need a clear notion of what that employment is!

Routine copyright, trademark, and patent registration of critical employee-generated IP. If your archives are known for a particularly good compilation of old photographs, for example, consider registration of the compilation with the Library of Congress (even if the images already have their own unique registration).  If you gave the compilation a unique name, consider trademarking it.  If your library developed a unique way to search the archive, explore a patent (before disclosing it to any other party!).

And if the asset is not only employer-owned, but critical, make the necessary archive and recovery copies, and make sure that back-up is controlled by the employer (locked cabinet, separate hard drive, employer-licensed cloud service). 

What can an employee or institution do if there is confusion regarding an employee-generated asset?  The best option is to promptly consult a lawyer.  Remember…what people do and say during the initial phase of a dispute can later become evidence, while timely input can hopefully avoid unnecessary debate, and find a “win-win.” That said, there is no replacement for clear hire terms, current policies, and routine IP asset management.  Staff and the great work they generate are critical assets of libraries and archives, so clarity is definitely worth the effort!

Tags: Copyright, Labor, Trademarks and Branding, Work-for-Hire

Topic: Copying of College Textbook Chapters - 5/1/2017
Our question concerns the copying of college textbook chapters for students where the required tex...
Posted: Monday, May 1, 2017 Permalink


Our question concerns the copying of college textbook chapters for students where the required textbook is either backordered by the bookstore day one of semester or where a late enrollees’ textbook is out of stock. 

One current solution involves a limited checkout of a text for the first four weeks of a semester, and only for library use for reading or photocopying. We keep a printout of the standard Copyright notice on the copier to warn against excessive copying. After four weeks, students must have access to the book on their own and textbook copies remain solely as desk copies for faculty. 

However, what is advised when multiple classes do not have textbooks in stock and late enrollees are more prevalent? What does copyright permit in terms of copying textbook chapters or providing e-links to textbook chapters on LMS (Blackboard, etc.) in such cases?


It’s 2017.  Digital access to academic resources having been a factor in academic life for over 20 years, it would be reasonable to think I would have clear, well-established guidance to give you.

However, as of 2016, the United States was still struggling with Fair Use, and the law doesn’t give us the bright-line rules we are hoping for.   Rather, particularly with regard to textbooks and digital access, recent case law has diminished them.

Very comparable to the circumstances you described is the case Cambridge University Press v. Mark P. Becker No. 1:08-cv-01425-ODE (N.D. Ga. Mar. 31, 2016).  In Cambridge, a court in Georgia, after trying to use a simpler, equally weighted Fair Use analysis, and relying on the ill-fated “10% standard” of duplication, ruled that when creating digital copies/excerpts of textbooks:

(1) the first factor, purpose and character of the use, weighs in favor of fair use because [a university] is a nonprofit educational institution;

(2) the second factor, the nature of the work, is “of comparatively little weight…particularly because the works at issue are neither fictional nor unpublished;”

(3) the third factor, the amount of work used, must be viewed through the lens of “the impact of market substitution as recognized under factor four, in determining whether the quantity and substantiality . . .of [d]efendants’ unlicensed copying was excessive;” and

(4) the fourth factor, the effect of the use on the potential market for the work, “concern[ed] not the market for Plaintiffs’ original works . . . but rather a market for licenses.”

This case shows that a when it comes to textbooks, while courts will give strong deference to educational institutions, there is no “magic formula” (like 10% of the content) they will apply to ensure Fair Use.  Rather, courts will apply a nuanced analysis that changes from work to work, and from use to use—making general guidance a challenge.

With all that in mind, my answer to the inquiry is:

First, the ability of the student/patron to physically access or check out the book is a great service by your library; with the required copyright notices posted, and no attempt by the library to collude with students in making prohibited copies, you are taking good advantage of section 108’s exemptions of libraries from liability for infringement.  In addition, providing access to textbooks within the structure outlined above is a great incentive for students to visit the library.

Second, your actual question—can my library use digital access to help students who were late registrants or otherwise unable to secure a physical or full digital copy?—requires application of the Fair Use factors on a work-by-work basis, which as we can see, is an increasingly intricate and fact-specific exercise.   You must apply the four factors not just on a work-by-work basis, but while considering the specific purpose of a particular use.

There are also some practical tips that can help you avoid being sued for infringement.

Tip #1: To answer questions like this, I always put myself in the shoes of the potential plaintiff.

· If I were the publisher, would I view the digitized access as cutting into my potential revenues? 

· Is there an easily obtainable license for the excerpt, that the library is just choosing to ignore?

· Can I, as the publisher, easily put a price on the damages? 

All these factors, if the answer is “yes,” can lead to the publisher instructing their lawyer to file suit. 

However, even if all of these are true, I, the publisher, would also ask…did every person who accessed the digital copy already have a copy on back-order (and not return it)?   If they bought my book, and were only using the digitization as a place-holder, I, the publisher, would tell my lawyer to look elsewhere for damages…especially since when I, the publisher lose, I am responsible for the legal fees of the other party (in the Cambridge case, the publisher was told to pay the fees of the university).

Tip #2: It is unfortunate that, like the courts, I can’t give a simple formula for Fair Use.  However, one way you can sometimes get a bit of “free” advice on this is to consult with your institution’s insurance carrier.  It is very likely your institution is insured for copyright infringement, and that they have a list of best practices they would like to ensure you, the insured, are following.  As a professional within the library, it is good to also confirm that this coverage will cover not only the institution, but you as an employee.  That can help you sleep at night.

Tip #3: And finally, if ever an entity notifies you that they are suing you for infringement, notify your insurance carrier right away.  Often times, they can provide counsel, and help you reach a quick, low-stress resolution.

Tags: Copyright, Digital Access, Fair Use, Textbooks, Photocopies, Work-for-Hire, Academic Libraries

Topic: Photocopying Music Scores - 11/08/2016
We have a request from a patron from another state for scans or photocopies of music scores that w...
Posted: Tuesday, November 8, 2016 Permalink


We have a request from a patron from another state for scans or photocopies of music scores that we own and that are still under copyright. They are rare and only a few libraries have them across the country. The patron does not intend to perform the music, only to study the scores. Is it fair use to copy or scan them for the patron who is writing a doctoral thesis?


Short answer: The proposed copying would not be a permitted, duplication or Fair Use without some additional steps consistent with the four Fair Use factors.

Long answer: This is a great question, as it marries the practical consideration of access with the scary question of a liability for infringement.  To answer it, there are a few initial points of priority….

First, it is critical to note that Section 108 (a) of the Copyright Act, which would normally allow for one copy of a work to be provided to fulfill this request, expressly excludes musical works (see Section 108 (i)).

Second:  Because of the Section 108 (a) exclusion, it is important to distinguish: while the patron may have a Fair Use defense if they duplicate the work for the purposes of scholarship, the library, in simply making the copy to provide easier access to a remote patron, might not.  

Third, as plaintiffs can sue “innocent infringers,” careful steps should be taken to ensure the library could not be viewed as a part of the chain of infringement, if the patron ends up not having a valid Fair Use defense for any copy or derivative work they generate.

Fourth, while this scenario does not state the original copy requires archiving, it sounds as if you have a rare and precious copy, so we’ll draw a bit from the law, case law and guidance covering the protection of deteriorating/rare documents.

And now…how do you enable the proposed access, but keep the library safe?   By ensuring 108(c) and the “Fair Use” factors are on your side, whether you send them a scanned copy, or loan a physical copy.   

Digital copy
Informed by the latest case law and guidance, the following steps could help claim Fair Use for providing the proposed copy digitally:

Step 1: As the Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in Academic and Research Libraries (www.arl.org/focus-areas/copyright-ip/fair-use/code-of-best-practices) puts it: “Providing [digital] access to published works that are available in unused copies on the commercial market at reasonable prices should be undertaken only with careful consideration, if at all.”  It is essential to verify that the works, or a licensed copy, are not commercially available.  This is essential for 108(c), too.

Step 2:  It is best if the transformation of format is not an ad hoc effort, but rather is part of an effort to promote a special resource of your library.   Making the digital copy a part of “special collection”—for instance, of rare music scores—will give you a stronger Fair Use defense.

Step 3: Again from the Code: “The Fair Use case will be stronger when the availability of the material is appropriately publicized to scholars in the field and other persons likely to be especially interested.”  In other words, once you have the collection digitized, don’t let it be just that ad hoc project—promote it.

Step 4: Use appropriate technological controls (digital watermarks, etc.) to restrict the access, limit duplication, and ensure proper attribution of materials in the collection.  That way, any eventual copying or derivative work generated by the patron is separate and distinct from the access provided by the library.

Step 5: As with any digital collection, make sure the library has an easily found way for people to register privacy or intellectual property concerns related to digital collections.

Physical copy
What if you just want to provide them with a physical copy?  Following Section 108(c)’s rules for duplicating deteriorating copies, you can generate a copy for preservation purposes, loaning it to them with the expectation that it will be returned.  Just take care that the work is not commercially available, and that the original copy is not available while the preservation copy is out on loan.

[NOTE: 108(c) bars a digital copy made on this basis from leaving your institution.]  

The bar on Section 108 (a) applying to musical works makes this a bit more challenging than the usual duplication request, but with some care, access can be provided.

Further, if the patron wants to make a copy of what your library loans them (either digitally, or in hard copy), if their use is as you describe, they may have their own Fair Use defense.  This will mean both the library and the patron can stand on separate, but solid, copyright ground. 

Tags: Copyright, Fair Use, Photocopies, Music, Section 108, Work-for-Hire

Topic: Showing Performance Video to a Sanctioned College Club - 11/8/2016
The question relates to showing a performance video to a sanctioned college club. I understand tha...
Posted: Tuesday, November 8, 2016 Permalink


The question relates to showing a performance video to a sanctioned college club. I understand that as long as the college's library owns the DVD or streaming rights, the movie can be shown in its entirety for educational purposes in a classroom to registered members of the institution. Does the same hold true for showing the same movie to clubs on campus as long as the event is restricted to college members? This second question is related to the movie presentation but is concerned with publicity. Can the cover image be copied and inserted into the event posters and on the college's website? The web announcement would be removed immediately after the event.


First question
As you say, a college can show a movie they own, without further licensing, so long as: 

  • The institution is a not-for-profit
  • The performance of the film is in connection with face-to-face teaching activities, in a classroom or similar place of instruction.
  • The copy was legitimately acquired

This is a broad exemption, but it absolutely does not apply to non-instructional, non-classroom showing of movies by student clubs.  Such a showing would require express permission via license.

Of course, if a student club has an academic focus (for instance, Spanish Club) and the film is to be part of an academic experience (for instance, watching the movie in Spanish, to enhance learning), in an academic setting (class room, with a qualified academic instructor) one could argue that the required elements are still met. But the educational purpose must be bona fide…no watching “Deadpool” for entertainment and then having a half-hearted, academically disconnected discussion on modern comic book tropes.  And of course under no circumstances should money be charged.

Second question
The second question is very simple: the cover images of most commercial films are subject to copyright.  Because of that, and because there is no exemption allowing them to be duplicated, unless permission is obtained, the college is well-advised not to allow copies to be displayed to promote the event, and especially should not allow that image to be published on the college website. 

Keeping it off the website is critical.  Even smaller rights holders police the internet for images they own, and insurance companies, facing mandatory statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, will quickly settle claims…something that will eventually lead to higher insurance premiums for your institution.

The best way to promote the licensed showing is to either use the approved promotional material that comes with the license, or generate a version that does not infringe on the content of the original (or the film).

Tags: Copyright, Streaming, Section 110, Work-for-Hire, Movies, Academic Libraries

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