Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Report from the library - Copyright!

     Mark Twain was once quoted as saying "There is only one thing impossible for God - to find any sense in any copyright law on this planet." (Notebook, 1902-1903) Since then, I can't see how anything has gotten any better with respect to copyright. But this is not a rant, but a report of recent copyright activity where I work.
     For the last several years I've been the library's designated "go-to guy" when faculty have questions concerning copyright. Usually my answer is "no, you can't do that. Sorry" because someone wants to use something for free or make and distribute copies of someone else's work. 
     Copyright was intended to secure author's/creator's rights to control their work, and be able to make some dough from their efforts.  In short, if you want to use it, you have to ask the copyright holder for permission. Fail to do this, and the copyright holder can sue you, and sue you big time.  However, as education is (or was, anyway) a valued public good in this country, educational institutions are granted some exemptions from the normal requirements.

     I bring this up because the other day I got a phone call from a staffer in the department that oversees our Distance Learning program. She hoped that I could resolve a disagreement between the dept. and a professor who wanted to use a chart in a set of assigned readings. 
     The chart appears in an article in a published journal. The professor is not interested in the article, just the chart. He really wants the students to read the chart, so much so that he's asking the DL department to pay the Copyright Clearance license for 40+ copies of the chart, to be added to a course pack. This would end up being several thousands of dollars, every semester. 
      I asked what journal the article appears in, and sure enough it's a journal that we already can access electronically through one of the subscription databases to which our library subscribes. Problem solved, I thought. But just when I thought I was being wonderfully clever and helpful, the DL staffer tells me that she's checked that already, and even suggested to the professor that linking to the article (hurrah for durable URL's) would be simpler and far cheaper. The professor didn't like this idea, thinking it would be too complicated for the students to get to the chart that way, and it's really important that the students read this chart. 
     Well, since I'm not a lawyer, and I have no authority with either the professor's department, or the DL department, I sort of feel like I weaseled out of giving an answer. I agreed in theory and practice with the DL people, the simplest answer is usually the best. But I can't make the professors do anything, so all I could do was word my opinion as strongly as possible. I haven't heard back from the DL office, so I assume they got it worked out. Maybe it's time to offer another faculty workshop on what copyright is and what you can and can't do with it. 


Kobold said...

Sometimes smart people insist on doing dumb things - and, apparently, there isn't a law against it ;) I guess the copyright fees would be fed back into the course fees so, for the department, the charge is cost neutral.

Library Bob said...

The cost issue was exactly the problem. One way or another, the cost would feed back to the students; and I am glad to say that at my school, the administration seriously tries to contain costs for the students, to keep things affordable. Were it not for the cost, either method would have worked. I'd say the professor was being short-sighted rather than dumb. Not that dumb things never happen here, like they do everywhere.