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are mostly excluded from the protections of Section 108, even when the copy is being converted from a medium that is obsolete.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.