We recently purchased equipment that is capable of converting VHS tapes to DVDs that will be used by staff and patrons. We were initially thinking of it being used for home movies, and such, but then a staff member raised the question about the legality of converting commercial (movies, TV shows) VHS tapes to DVDs. Are there copyrighting issues involved? If it's not legal to convert them, what language can we use in our literature to make sure they are aware that it is not allowed, and any penalty that they may incur if they do? (We won't be watching them when they use the equipment.)
Thank you very much for your response!
VHS-to-digital conversion can open up options for accessibility under the ADA.
Many people have treasured family memories they need to convert a more accessible format.
A converter can also help with the creation of critical and new works.
This converter will be a really valuable service for your patrons. But your staff member is right to be cautious.
“Ask the Lawyer” has previously addressed the issue of libraries and patrons making copies under various circumstances (search the “Ask the Lawyer” archives). In those previous answers, among other things, we reviewed the special rights libraries have to make and convert copies under Section 108 of the Copyright Act, which applies specifically to libraries and archives.
Those previous answers cover some of the fundamental elements of this question. They also each include a careful emphasis that patron duplication of audio-visual works (like movies) are mostly excluded from the protections of Section 108, even when the copy is being converted from a medium that is obsolete.
What does all this mean? The staffer is absolutely right—commercial movies might be a resource patrons are eager to convert using the library’s equipment. . . And that could create an infringement a concern
Fortunately, Section 108 has a remedy for this problem. So long as the converting machine displays a notice that “The making of a copy may be subject to copyright law,” the library will meet the requirements of 108 to avoid the imposition of liability for unsupervised patron use of the equipment.
The “unsupervised” requirement is critical, here. If a patron’s use of the equipment is supervised by an employee, or the patron’s behavior makes it obvious that systematic infringement is going on, 108 might not apply.
So, a few things to help you be cautious:
1.When setting up the new equipment, select a place where patron privacy can be honored and employees can’t “supervise” the use of the equipment.
2) Posting “The making of a copy may be subject to copyright law” is a requirement to limit the library’s liability for a patron’s “unsupervised” use.
3) Keep in mind that any obvious copyright violations (like someone stacking an entire collection of BBC miniseries next to the converter and generating multiple DVDs of each one) should be promptly addressed through your patron code of conduct.
Which brings us to the final part of the member’s question: what language, both posted and in a code of conduct, can position a library to observe that last bullet? Patron codes of conduct generally have copyright infringement sections, but if your library does not, a good start is:
The [NAME] library is committed to maximum content access through the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 108 of the Copyright Act, Section 110 of the Copyright Act, and Section 107 of the Copyright Act (Fair Use). However, use of library resources to generate or access copies beyond those rights cannot be supported by our library. Although patron use of such resources is unsupervised, reproduction equipment such as photocopiers, scanners, 3-D printers, and VHS converters are all marked “The making of a copy may be subject to copyright law.”
Any observable use of library equipment to access or make multiple copies in violation of copyright, trademark, or patent law is prohibited under this policy and will be addressed as a violation of this Patron Code of Conduct.
Thank you for this insightful question. I hope many weddings, graduation ceremonies, and birthday parties recorded in the 1990s find a new digital life in your library!
 What it actually says, relevant to this question, is: “The rights of reproduction and distribution under this section do not apply to a musical work, a pictorial, graphic or sculptural work, or a motion picture or other audiovisual work other than an audiovisual work dealing with news….” [except to make a copy when a format is obsolete, AND a copy cannot be obtained for a reasonable price] so long as “any such copy or phonorecord that is reproduced in digital format is not made available to the public in that format outside the premises of the library or archives in lawful possession of such copy.”
 The law states: “(f)Nothing in this section—(1) shall be construed to impose liability for copyright infringement upon a library or archives or its employees for the unsupervised use of reproducing equipment located on its premises: Provided, That such equipment displays a notice that the making of a copy may be subject to the copyright law[.]”
 This time it says: “(g)The rights of reproduction and distribution under this section extend to the isolated and unrelated reproduction or distribution of a single copy or phonorecord of the same material on separate occasions, but do not extend to cases where the library or archives, or its employee—
(1) is aware or has substantial reason to believe that it is engaging in the related or concerted reproduction or distribution of multiple copies or phonorecords of the same material, whether made on one occasion or over a period of time, and whether intended for aggregate use by one or more individuals or for separate use by the individual members of a group….”
I realize this is a lot of footnotes. I’m trying to summarize the situation in the article, but want to provide the footnotes in case any enterprising librarians want to read the law themselves.
 A scenario for which I would be hard-pressed to find a Fair Use or ADA justification for.
We are in the process of transferring old VHS tapes to DVD and then to a secure internet cloud.
The tapes are ours ranging from 1988- 2001, we taped specific classes with numerous instructors who were aware of the taping process. Since the tapes belong to us are there any copyright issues in reproducing and offering access to for a fee through our Lakeside Learning Center, or reproducing as a DVD and selling?
We also have very old cassette tapes of a similar nature. We possess them and instructors being taped were fully aware.
We would like to offer these as an MP3 for paid access.
Putting the tapes on the cloud: it is great that educational institutions are saving and promoting their accumulated knowledge this way. But aside from the copyright issues the member asks about (which we’ll get to at the bottom of this reply), the transfer and publication of legacy instructional material can bring some additional legal considerations.
Here are some “red flags” for converting video of your past lectures for digital re-sale.
In New York, the commercial use (including sales of instructional DVDs, as mentioned in the question) of a person’s image, likeness, and name must be with written permission. Of course, for employees whose routine duties include being recorded (like newscasters), that consent is addressed at the start of the job. But for instructors who may have been aware they were being taped in 1988, but weren’t aware that the tape could be acquired by paid viewers later via the Internet, there could be some risk that a past instructor might object to being included.
Further, in the event the instructor was an employee covered by a collective bargaining agreement or other employment contract at the time of filming, they could have some rights you need to consider. A quick check with a Human Resources department should be able to confirm if any past or current agreement poses any complications.
And finally, in the event the instructor who was filmed was not an employee, but under a speaker agreement--perhaps speaking for a small fee—an institution must exercise caution, since awareness of being filmed does not constitute permission to mass-produce the product and sell it in the marketplace. If possible, sending a note to the former speaker, thanking them for their past participation and offering a small fee in exchange for their signature on written permission for the new use, is best.
The bottom line: there are a lot of possible permutations to the “image use” issue. To avoid them, whenever possible, verify that your institution has written, signed permission to use a person’s image before selling any newly converted recordings.
Accuracy and Reliability Disclaimer
In the event any of the instructional materials relate to a trade, profession, or other topic governed by prevailing standards, law, or regulations, a disclaimer that carefully clarifies that the content was generated in 1988 (or whatever year applies), might be wise.
Of course, if the content is opinion-based, that is not an issue. But if the person is relating an objective best practice, regulation, or law, making sure a viewer is warned that the information could be out of date is critical.
It’s a long shot for the scenario posed by the member, but in the event there is any trademarked material (for instance, a set of instructional booklets with a prominent logo) be wary before digitizing and charging for access. The incidental use of another entity’s trademark could create an alleged infringement. Fortunately, as can be seen in a lot of reality TV, this can be avoided by simply blurring the mark!
The member is correct; if the institution (through its employees) is the entity that created the recording, and there is no written agreement to the contrary, the institution owns the copyright, and can duplicate, sell, and create derivative works based on the content.
However, care should be taken to verify that no independently owned content is contained within the video (a person reading a poem, for instance). While under many circumstances such inclusion can qualify as a “Fair Use,” that is not always the case (for more on this caveat, see the “Recently Asked Question” posted on Saturday, January 27, 2018).
 Please note: this issue is different from digitization projects by libraries who own, but did not produce, the content!
We have several VHS tapes that our anthropology professors use in the classroom. Our campus will be phasing out VHS as the players break down. We would like to send these to a vendor to create DVDs or digital files. We feel we have done the due diligence searching for a replacement. In most academic libraries media materials are purchased for distribution to the classroom for educational use. Making a copy would be of little benefit if use is not allowed in classroom, face to face instruction.
WNYLRC ATTORNEY’S RESPONSE
From: Stephanie C. Adams
Date: June 27, 2017
This question starts with 17 USC 108(c), which allows for duplication of “obsolete,” formats, but limits the accessibility of digitized copies “to the premises” of the library.
The inquiring library set out the other 108(c) factors: the obsolescence of VHS (manufacture stopped in 2016), the lack of commercially available copies, and the published nature of the work. So as you say, what’s left to determine is: Does the “premises” of a library in an educational institution include the whole campus?
“Premises” is not defined in the Copyright Code, nor is it commented on in the lawmaking notes (vis-à-vis this question). I found no case law directly on point. So we’ll go to the lawyer’s last resort: common sense.
Section 108’s bar on digitized preservation copies leaving the premises of the library is very rigid, and it is likely the boundaries of your library are, too. If the library has a finite space that is reported in things like strategic plans, accreditation reports, and campus maps, then the “premises” would most likely be deemed to end at the door, not flow throughout the campus. A quick search on this issue show this is the emerging consensus. So yes, the DVD’s you make as a result of this format shift are, at first, trapped in your library.
This creates a ridiculous conundrum: you need to shift the format so the educational material may be accessed, now that the format is no longer supported. But in transferring the information to a digital format, you are shackling it to the premises. How can you provide access?
 The Section 110 exemption for “classroom use,” requires that the viewed copy be “lawfully made,” and your digital copy, to be “lawfully made,” must stay on site. So I do not feel safe advising you to use that route…although it is uncharted territory.
You have two options:
First, it is important to remember that the shift of format does not necessarily change the license your institution purchased when it first acquired the VHS tapes. This is a point strongly emphasized in both 108, and the lawmaker notes accompanying it. If your institution had a license to use the copies for classroom room, directly from the owner/publisher, that license might survive the shift. That could be determined from the purchase records or license text on the video itself.
Second, the Association of Research Libraries’ “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries” was drafted, in part, to address this situation (see page 18). In the Code, the ARL posits that when a preservation copy is made, further access can be granted under Fair Use. This does come with limits however: “off-premises access to preservation copies circulated as substitutes for original copies should be limited to authenticated members of a library’s patron community, e.g., students, faculty, staff, affiliated scholars, and other accredited users.” Further, the Code states that preservation and Fair Use copies should not be accessed simultaneously, and technology controls should be used both label the copy as required by 108, and to restrict further duplication.
This Fair Use solution to your problem has been adopted into the published policies of many institutions (here are a few examples). As there is no case law on point, I cannot say it is a slam-dunk defense, but I can say that if you adopt your own policy for carefully following this emerging standard practice, and then document that you follow it as you embark on this journey to ensure continued access to educational material you rightfully purchased, you will be in good company if content owners decide to sue for infringement, and recent case law about fair use will likely weigh in your favor.
There is a good deal of writing and advocacy on this issue, and hopefully in another few years, I will have a more definitive answer to give you!
We are shifting away from VHS here on this campus (along with everywhere else), and have a question from an instructor about transferring a VHS tape to DVD. She's not able to get the tape on DVD or streaming, but knows that it's under copyright. Are there any loopholes to allow for making a digital backup of a VHS tape because VHS is an obsolete medium? Does going through a good-faith effort to find a digital version give some protection or leniency? Should we encourage the instructor to contact PBS or the show's producers to obtain copyright clearance for making a digital copy?
We’ll start out with the best advice: unless you stand on the legal high ground of a disability accommodation or a crumbling single copy unavailable in the original medium, when it comes to creating a new format of a work, written permission from the copyright owner is always best. That is the gold standard. If you have permission, the blood, sweat, and tears (or stress, more likely) of a Fair Use analysis are not needed.
This scenario does not occupy any legal high ground. For a library in this position—dealing with the increasing rarity of VHS players—there is great guidance out there from the Association of Research Libraries’ “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use” (http://www.arl.org/storage/documents/publications/code-of-best-practices-fair-use.pdf): Here is what the code has to say on this issue…
Even when libraries retain the originals of preserved items, digital surrogates can spare the original items the wear and tear that access necessarily inflicts. Section 108 of the Copyright Act authorizes some preservation activities, but does not address some of today’s most pressing needs…[including] the transfer to new formats of materials whose original formats (such as VHS magnetic tape) are not yet obsolete (as the term is narrowly defined in section 108(c)) but have become increasingly difficult for contemporary users to consult.
Case law also acknowledges this VHS problem, but gives no relief: “Fair use has never been held to be a guarantee of access to copyrighted material in order to copy it by the fair user's preferred technique or in the format of the original.” (University Studios et al v. Corley, U.S. Court of Appeal 2nd Circuit, 2001). This case is 15 years old, which means a lot has happened in the world of technology, but is still good law.
So the answer is, for now, unless you are making a disability accommodation, or faced with a crumbling copy, there is no iron-clad loophole or clear precedent to allow the proposed conversion to be a “fair use.”
That said, if you have a deteriorating copy, a good-faith effort to re-purchase it in the original medium will certainly contribute to a fair use defense if you duplicate it to preserve this resource.
To help both you and your institution show that you have gone through this exercise, when you address such questions, I advise that you compose short emails to yourself, documenting the question, process, and conclusion. A simple:
“Instructor stopped by today and asked if we could convert VHS in the collection to DVD for ease of access. I let her know we’ll try to purchase a copy on DVD or seek permission of the copyright holder to make a copy on DVD.”
“Instructor stopped by today and asked if we could convert VHS to a format that would allow Deaf student to view closed-captioned version; we are arranging conversion solely to allow reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”
“Instructor pointed out that VHS tape in collection was not working right. [Co-worker] and I verified the condition. As best practices state it is fair use to make digital copies of collection items that are likely to deteriorate, or that exist only in difficult-to-access formats, for purposes of preservation, and to make those copies available as surrogates for fragile or otherwise inaccessible materials, the library will create a back-up copy, UNLESS a fully equivalent digital copy is commercially available at a reasonable cost. We will of course not provide access to or circulate original and preservation copies simultaneously.”
This July, various news outlets reported that the world’s last manufacturer of VCR’s has cease production. Please check back on this issue; we’ll update this entry in the FAQ when we have better guidance, which should be coming soon. Congress is working on new guidelines, and was recently told by the Register of Copyrights, Susan Pallante: “In its current state, Section 108 is replete with references to analog works and fails to address the ways in which libraries really function in the digital era, including the copies they must make to properly preserve a work and the manner in which they share or seek to share works with other libraries.”