RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Previous Employer re-assigned authorship of LibGuides - 3/12/2020
Many librarians create and post LibGuides through Springshare.  Right now, when an employee l...
Posted: Thursday, March 12, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Many librarians create and post LibGuides through Springshare.  Right now, when an employee leaves a library, the LibGuides they created can be attributed to another library employee after they leave.  Does this create a legal concern?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

 I am a hands-on kind of lawyer.  When I do a real estate deal, I visit the property.  When I advise a historic preservation group, I drag my kids to see old houses.  When I represent a bakery, I try not to pack on an extra five pounds, but it’s always touch-and-go.

So, when this question came in, I hopped on SpringShare and checked out their product description for LibGuides, and pretended I was going to write one.  I delved into the license terms and the mechanics of the utility.  I observed how their various products work together, or a la carte.

On the SpringShare website, LibGuides is summarized this way:

LibGuides is an easy-to-use content management system deployed at thousands of libraries worldwide. Librarians use it to curate knowledge and share information, organize class and subject specific resources, and to create and manage websites.”

I checked in with a few librarians I know (one of whom works in my office), and they reported that yes, the product is widely used and popular.  While mine was a very unscientific survey,[1] the  day I hopped on, SpringShare’s web page boasted participation by “6,100 libraries” and “82 countries” and “130,300” librarians.

I noticed a lot of legally interesting things when I was down the SpringShare rabbit hole, but I what I focused on was the member’s question: is there a legal concern related to attributions of LibGuides content?

I started with the LibGuides License,[2] which states:

OWNERSHIP OF DATA: Licensor does not own any data, information or material that you submit to the Software ("Customer Data").

In other words, SpringShare (the licensor) confirms that the subscriber (the licensee) owns the content they put on LibGuides.

The License then goes on:

You, not Licensor [remember, Springshare is the “Licensor”], shall have sole responsibility for the accuracy, quality, integrity, legality, reliability, appropriateness, and intellectual property ownership or right to use of all Customer Data, and Licensor shall not be responsible or liable for the deletion, correction, destruction, damage, loss or failure to store any Customer Data.

This means that while the licensee (the subscribing librarian or library) owns the content, they are also responsible for the consequences created by any content they don’t have the rights to (infringement claim, violation of privacy claim, etc.).

This is a very typical approach for content-sharing platforms.

The License then states:

In the event this Agreement is terminated, Licensor will make available to you a file of the Customer Data in XML format within 30 days of termination if you so request at the time of termination.

Isn’t that generous?  If you remember to ask nicely at the time you terminate the contract, you (the Licensee) have thirty whole days retrieve your property.[3]

This property arrangement is at the heart of the member’s question.  SpringShare claims no ownership of the content placed on LibGuides.  That content, unless licensed from another, is supposed to be owned by the licensee (the person or entity contracting with SpringShare for the service).

But is the “licensed LibGuides user” the content owner?

That depends.

In the member’s question, the “licensed LibGuides user” was probably the library (it would be very unusual, and not business-appropriate, for an account for an institution to be in an individual person’s name).  So, the library is the one getting assured they own the content put up through the account, and the library is the entity responsible in the event the content causes a problem (infringes copyright, invades someone’s privacy, etc.).

Now this is where the issue gets sensitive.  Under copyright law, content generated by employees, AS PART OF THEIR REGULAR DUTIES, is owned by their employer—unless a contract, policy, or hire letter says otherwise.  This “default rule” is spelled out in section 201(b) of the Copyright Act.[4]

How does this play out in the work environment? It varies.  Many librarians are part of a union, which means the written work they generate as part of their job might not be subject to the above-described “default rule” (a collective bargaining agreement can change the terms of employment related to copyright).  Still others work in environments where this “default rule” has been changed through a policy, or a hire letter.

This lack of uniformity means that any librarian composing LibGuides, who wants to use their compositions after they move to another job, should make sure they know where they stand when it comes to “employee-generated intellectual property.”  Does their workplace follow the “default rule?”  Does a union contract, policy, or hire letter change the “default rule?”  And is writing a LibGuide even part of their duties?

This is critical, because depending on who owns the content, they are free to do as they like with it: keep it up, remove it, change it, update it, etc. (of course, what they do on LibGuides is limited by the License and the technology).  And it is also critical because the current configuration[5] of LibGuides seems, to me, to create a potential problem.

Now, that addressed the legal part of the question; the answer is: yes, there are some legal concerns.  But the “legal” concerns might not be the full scope of the concerns presented by the question’s scenario.  Attribution of authorship is different from ownership, but it can be a critical issue of integrity.

My understanding of how LibGuides functions is that the account holder can change the roles, authority, and people admitted to create, modify, or access the content.  Within LibGuides, subscribers have the ability to assign users (Admin users, Regular users, Editor users, Contributor users, and Patron users) with different levels of access and authority.[6]

Within this structure, “Admin users” (who have the highest level of authority over an account), manage the Licensee’s use of the service.  The settings are changeable, and different LibGuides can be assigned to different users.

But what was WILD to me is that when a librarian leaves a library, to maintain the LibGuide, the library has to assign another staffer to the Guide.  That’s fine and makes sense, but because of LibGuide’s interface, that new person is then listed as the librarian in charge of the guide, and the way the screen looks (to me) the implication is that they are the author.

I believe that is the genesis of this question; people who took pride in their creation of a LibGuide first attributed to them are now seeing (implied) authorship (seemingly) attributed to another.  I have to admit, whether I owned it or not, that would sting a little.  Writing, even if it’s for your job, can be a very personal endeavor.

This seems entirely due to the design of the interface.  Between you, me, and the Internet,[7] it seems like a needless and utterly solvable problem.  And while not necessarily a legal issue (although if the former employee owns their work, it could be) it strikes me as a serious ethics/integrity/relationships issue.

Authorship is something people take seriously, especially in the arenas of academia and publishing—worlds in which librarians play an essential role.

How can this be solved?

First, LibGuides might want to think this through and develop a solution.[8]  But until then, libraries using LibGuides should assess their legal position (do they own their employees’ work under the “default rule”?  Or does a contract or policy say otherwise?) and, think how this phenomenon rests with their values.  On the flip side, librarians who create a great LibGuide and then want to move on in their professional careers should pay attention to who is the LibGuide’s “owner” and be mindful that a LibGuide owned by their employer will not always be in their name.  Further, the mutable nature of LibGuides (they are designed to be updated, altered and changed) means you might not always want to be associated with what the Guide turns into!

Thanks for a great question.



[1] “Unalytics.”

[2] “Terms of Use” and licensing agreements can be treacherous!  Services change them from time to time.  This was posted as of 3/6/2020, but always get your contract answers straight from the source.

[3] As a rule, I try to avoid snark and sarcasm in the “Ask the Lawyer” service.  Such rhetoric doesn’t age well, and there are defter ways to be funny.  That said, this one deserves some snark.  Thirty days, and then potentially thousands of dollars of your assets are lost?  Not so great.

[4] The law reads: “In the case of a work made for hire [which includes “a work prepared by an employee within the scope [their] employment”] the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright.”

[5] As of March 6, 2020.

[6] On March 6, 2020, I found these categories on the LibGuides FAQ at ask.springshare.com/libguides/faq/1119#general.

[7] Hi, SpringShare!  I am confident you can fix this!

[8] For instance, I would create a “Legacy Content and History” option for customers, where the evolving work and chain of authors could be tracked.  Of course, that would still put the ultimate fate of the content in the hands of the employer, but it would empower them to maintain good feelings between librarians.

Tags: Copyright, LibGuides, Licensing, Ownership

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