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Copyright Q & A — An Introduction

US copyright law impacts almost every facet of librarianship and it is not uncommon for library staff to encounter copyright questions and issues on a daily basis. Some of these questions and issues arise as part of the services libraries offer and can include (but are certainly not limited to) circulating books, sharing copies of articles via Interlibrary Loan, or reusing copyrighted images and graphics in marketing materials promoting library programming. Other times we are asked copyright questions by patrons, e.g. “How many recipes can I photocopy from this cookbook before I’m violating copyright law?” or “Can I post a PDF copy of this article I downloaded from one of the library databases online for my students to read?”. This column will provide a forum for OhioNET members to ask questions about copyright law and learn more about the rights and responsibilities granted to those creating copyrightable works or looking to reuse copyrightable works created by others. It is my hope that the information provided here will help readers confidently respond to copyright issues and that may arise as part of their day-to-day job responsibilities and better prepare them to answer copyright questions asked by library patrons.

Readers can submit their copyright questions to be answered in future newsletters using this form.


Our first question explores licensing issues…

Question: The library purchased an article for a professor from a journal we don’t own. They would like to share the article with their class, and we believe the professor will continue doing this for several semesters. Should this professor place the article in Canvas as a PDF, where it is protected by password for their class only, or should they place the printed copy of the article on course reserve?  Is there another option?


Answer: Because this individual article was purchased specifically for the professor, you first want to check to see if there were terms and conditions put forward by the vendor as part of the purchase that may control how it can be used. It will not be unheard of or unusual if the vendor had terms and conditions in-place that states something along the lines of “the copy of the article is intended for the personal use of the patron it was purchased for and cannot be shared with others in print or electronic form.” If such terms were agreed to as part of the purchase, then it would be a violation of them for a copy of the article to be posted to the professor’s Canvas course page or for a printed copy to be circulated via course reserves.

If there were no terms and conditions connected to the purchase of the article -or- if there were terms and conditions that were agreed to as part of the purchase but they did not specifically address the reuse and the sharing of copies of the article with others, then fair use (17 United States Code, Section 117) or the TEACH Act (17 United States Code, Section 110[2]) can be considered for making a copy of the article available to students via the professor’s Canvas course page, or fair use could be considered for circulating a printed copy of the article via course reserves.

Another option available to you would be obtaining a copy of the article from another library under fair use or under the “Limitations on exclusive rights: Reproduction by libraries and archives” exception found in Section 108 of US copyright law. Libraries frequently utilize these two exceptions when taking part in Interlibrary Loan lending and borrowing. So long as no specific reuse terms and conditions like those I outlined above are added on to the transaction by the lending library or are placed upon the patron utilizing this service by their home library, then the patron is free to consider using exceptions found in US copyright law for reuses of the copy of the work provided to them. In this situation, that could include considering fair use or the TEACH Act if they are a professor looking to share the work with their students via a Canvas course page, or fair use if they wish to make a print copy available via course reserve.

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