Early Career Librarian Series: Discover Your Copyright Capability

February 15, 2019 Rachel Becker

Can I use this author’s paragraph in my work? Can I tweet a copy of this article to someone? What about this form I need to sign to publish my article or conference presentation?

Whether you’re a librarian, author or both, you’ve probably encountered a copyright question at some point. The subject can seem intimidating and the risk of doing something illegal is especially frightening. But not to worry; understanding basic copyright concepts is pretty easy and can even, (gasp!), be fun!

No copyright background? No problem!

Some librarians who specialize in copyright and scholarly communications have advanced degrees which provide training in these areas. However, many do not and are self-taught. I fell into copyright not too long ago and have built my skills through several avenues:

  • Online resources: There are many excellent library guides on copyright created by libraries specifically for librarians at the institutional level. These guides are great places to get quality information from basic copyright concepts to authors’ rights to streaming media guidelines. In addition to providing a solid starting place for your own research, the links can be sent to others who ask copyright questions.
  • Free courses: Who doesn’t like free stuff? Coursera has two online courses specifically on copyright for librarians and educators. Both offer video lectures and course content from some of the most knowledgeable copyright experts around. The self-paced lessons make fitting the content into busy librarian life a snap. Even if you aren’t interested in learning all the nitty gritty details of copyright, the different modules make skipping around easy. CopyrightX is another online course offered by the Harvard Law School. Enrollment is by application and is currently free. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, consider taking the exam at the end to earn the certificate.
  • Conferences: There are a few conferences that concentrate on copyright law specifically. The Kraemer Copyright Conference held in Colorado Springs is one of the best I’ve attended. Whether you’re a novice looking to learn basics from the best of the best or a seasoned copyright expert, this free conference offers an always stellar program on a diverse set of cutting edge topics. Registration is competitive so be sure to register early! Other conferences such as ALA, ACRL, and the Charleston Conference often have sessions on copyright as well.
  • Networking: The field of copyright law in librarianship is a small but engaged group. Many of the most knowledgeable experts in the field have Twitter accounts and contribute to blogs. Following conference presenters on Twitter and live tweeting can be great ways to stay engaged with the copyright community. Copyright basics rarely change but much like any area of the law, many aspects are constantly changing and evolving. Following copyright law news online is useful for staying engaged in the community and finding ways to engage your community around copyright.

Engaging Campus Authors

So how will you apply your newfound copyright skills? Your campus authors can range from graduate students to faculty, or anyone else looking to publish their works. This is where becoming comfortable with copyright law as it pertains to authors’ rights can become extremely useful.

Often, author agreements provision that copyright be transferred from the original author to the publisher as part of the publication. The following rights, among others, can be transferred in an author agreement:

  • Reproduce and make copies of the work
  • Distribute and sell copies to the public
  • Transfer these rights to others

This can mean that actions such as posting the article to research sharing websites, social media, and even password protected course management systems could put the author in violation of their author agreement. Depending on the specific provisions, these restrictions could apply to not only the final published version but also prior versions they might have written before the final published one.

Knowing what they might want to do with their work in the future is helpful when the author is thinking about their agreement. From a copyright perspective, some important points to consider include:

  • Using the work in future courses or classes they might be teaching
  • Composing subsequent works based on this publication
  • Whether the work has been published in whole or in part in the past
  • If their employer or other relevant party has certain stipulations on what rights they must retain
  • Whether they are either required or would like to deposit the work into your institution’s digital repository

Once the author knows what they wish to do with their work in the future and other requirements, it’s time to request the author agreement from the publisher. If the agreement is not available on their website, contact them for a copy preferably in a format that can be edited (e.g. Microsoft Word). Read the agreement carefully several times through and mark any concerning sections. Make suggested changes and include comments, explaining as thoroughly as possible, the reasoning behind the edits. For the author’s own records, make note of any edits which are non-negotiable and which must be included in the final agreement. This will assist them in the negotiation process moving forward.

Once they have reached a version which is satisfactory for all parties, it’s time to sign. Retain a copy for their records and refer to it when they have a question about using the work in the future.

Creating a page dedicated to basic copyright concepts, scholarly communications, and issues specific to instructors is another great way for the library to engage with the campus community. Unless the librarian creating it has a law degree, it’s important to remember that nothing on the website nor during instructor interactions constitutes legal advice.

Copyright CAN be fun and your librarians are a friendly group who are happy to answer questions and share their passion with you!

Rachel Becker is the Copyright and Emerging Technologies Librarian at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin. Her library experience started in public libraries and has expanded to include government, law, and archives. Rachel’s specific area of interests include copyright and fair use as it applies to libraries and scholarly publications as well as how technology is shaping the student experience. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her horse and binge watching TV shows.

About the Author

Rachel Becker

Copyright & Emerging Technologies Librarian, Madison Area Technical College // Rachel Becker is the Copyright and Emerging Technologies Librarian at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin. Her library experience started in public libraries and has expanded to include government, law, and archives. Rachel’s specific area of interests include copyright and fair use as it applies to libraries and scholarly publications as well as how technology is shaping the student experience. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her horse and binge watching TV shows.

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