We have video recordings of campus speakers that we are interested in digitizing and publishing to an online platform. They are currently on VHS and/or DVD and available in the Library to be checked-out.
The speakers include writers and poets who recite their published, copyrighted works to the college audience. Is it possible for us to post the recordings of these readings (as well as question and answer sessions) online? Most likely there was no signed license agreement when filmed.
Part of the mission of higher education institutions is to bring important, provocative, and enlightening speakers to their communities. Over the years, this results in an impressive roster of authors, artists, professionals, politicians, comedians, dignitaries, and civic leaders, having spoken on campus. Sometimes, all or part of this roster was captured on film, video, or audio recording.
The rights to those recordings—and what can be done with them in the digital age—can present a complicated situation. Each individual recording comes with a suite of considerations that can make a digitization project difficult. But in a scenario like the one posed by the member, critical points of analysis can be assessed, so a way forward is found. Here are those critical points:
Assessment Point #1: Who owns the copyright (to the recording)?
First, it is useful to establish who owns the copyright to the actual recording. Since copyright to a recording vests in the person who created the recording, not the person being recorded (unless it was a selfie), this is sometimes easy to assess. As we say in the biz: “who pushed the ‘record’ button?”
If the recording was made by an employee of the institution, and there was no contractual agreement otherwise, then the copyright to the recording is owned by the institution. If it was recorded by a student who just happened to be there, or a third-party attendee, the school doesn’t own it (which becomes an issue in the subsequent steps). Awareness of this factor is a good starting point for what lies ahead.
If your institution owns the copyrights to the recording, you can skip points #2, #3 and #4, below.
Assessment Point #2: Is this recording part of the library’s collection?
Just because the educational institution owns the physical copy doesn’t mean it is part of the library’s collection. For purposes of numbers 3 and 4, below, if your institution doesn’t own the recording, in order to convert and/or conserve it under Copyright Act Section 108 (the section giving special rights to certain libraries), the original recording must be formally cataloged and included in the library’s collection.
Assessment Point #3: Is the library in a position to convert the copy to a digital medium?
If the copy is formally a part of the library’s collection, and it is on a format considered “obsolete” under section 108 of the Copyright code (so long as the devices are no longer manufactured, VHS is, for example, is considered “obsolete”), the library may convert it to a digital format, and loan it out as provided by the §108. NOTE: this does NOT mean you can include it in an online digital collection, for anyone to access any time, but it takes you one step closer to it!
Assessment Point #4: Does the library need to conserve the copy?
If the original copy is deteriorating, it may be duplicated as set forth in Section 108. NOTE: this also does NOT mean you can include it in an online digital collection, but it makes sure than once you can, your original copy is safe, and backed up for posterity.
Assessment Point #5: Did the institution have any right to record, and/or to use the image of the person who was recorded?
This requires scouring the contracts of the institution. Most speaker contracts these days include terms controlling the right (or not) to make a recording, but, as reflected in the scenario posed by the member, in the past this was not the case. This assessment is critical, especially since at academic institutions, other departments at the institution may want to use the content to promote and celebrate the institution…but in New York, the commercial use of a person’s image, without their written consent, can carry both civil and criminal penalties.
Assessment Point #6: Are there any concerns with trademark?
The risk posed in #5 is increased if the speakers’s name and image is currently being used for purposes of a trademark (like “Maya Angelou” which is protected under Federal Trademark 86978575), or if a trademark was on display during the presentation. This means any arguably commercial use (like selling copies, putting it on the school’s website or catalog, or selling a t-shirt promoting the collection) should only be done in consultation with an attorney.
Assessment Point #7: Are there other copyright concerns?
This is the meat in the sandwich of the member’s scenario. Going through the above steps, even if an institution:
1) owns the recording;
2) includes the recording in the library’s catalog;
3) meets the 108 criteria to convert it from an obsolete format;
4) meets the 108 criteria to make preservation copies;
5) has permission to use the name and likeness of the speaker in any and all formats, for whatever reason, forever;
6) verifies there are no trademarks involved…
…if the speaker read a copyrighted work during the recording, that “performance” of a copyrighted work MIGHT be subject to its own copyright, and thus, bring with it a host of new restrictions, cramping the bounds of your digital usage.
What a pain, right?
Fortunately, there is solution. For any library at an educational institution contemplating digitizing the institution’s recorded guest speakers, if the written record doesn’t reflect clear permission to record and use the content, writing to the original speaker, or the current copyright owners, to ask for permission, may be the best solution. A sample request, with the variables notes in CAPS, is right here1:
You may recall speaking at INSTITUTION on DATE. During that performance, you read [INSERT TITLE(S)] (hereinafter, the “Works”).
Our on-campus library seeks to include a copy of that performance, recorded on FORMAT, in an online, digital collection to be called TITLE (the “Collection”). We would like to include the recording in an online Collection, so it may be accessed by the public, for purposes of enjoyment and scholarship.
To that end, we ask the following:
1. Are you the sole copyright owner of the Works? Yes No
2. If you are not the owner, do you retain the right to give permission for their reproduction, distribution, performance, and display? Yes No
If you are not the copyright holder, or do not hold the rights, please let us know who does: _____________________________________________________________
If you are the copyright holder, please consider the below requests:
3. Copyright License
May [INSTITUTION] have a non-transferable, irrevocable license to reproduce, duplicate, display, perform, and, by virtue of the recording being part of the Collection, prepare a derivative work of, the Work(s), solely as performed by you and recorded by INSTITUTION on DATE? Yes No
We would like to use your name and picture to promote the Collection. May [INSTITUTION] use your name and likeness, including but not limited to photos or images of you, the recorded sound of your voice, for the purpose of promoting the Collection in hard copy, on the institution’s website, and via any other medium existing now, or later developed? Yes No
Thank you for considering this request. I included a self-addressed, stamped envelope, in the hope of a favorable reply.
Of course, the risk of asking is that they say “no”…and that they demand you stop using the recording of the derivative work! That is why in all of this, any contracts should be assessed by an attorney, so the rights of your institution are protected, and any requests for permissions should be carefully considered prior to submitting the request.
So, the answer is (and I appreciate it took a long time to get there!): unless the recording were news coverage—which is assessed under a different array of laws—permission (given either at the time of the arrangement, or many years later) for digital duplication and distribution is required, but can be arranged well after the event.
1 NOTE: This approach is for educational institutions that were also the original recorders of the work to be digitized, who are seeking a wide degree of latitude on their use. This approach is NOT suggested for digitization efforts involving content generated by third parties at non-educational institutions. It also does not cover recordings of musical works (that would be a whole other answer!).