Copyright: What You Need to Know • Librarians Self-Censor

I hear two different sides of the question of what we need to do to comply with copyright law. One is my teachers or my administrators think that because we're a school, we can do anything we want. And the other is airing in the other direction, thinking that, for example, your right to fair use is limited to the quantitative numbers that are put forth and the guidelines that we discuss in a different lesson. A lot of understanding of copyright law tends to air either on a side of an educational environment. Thinking you can do more than the law really allows, or as is usually the case for librarians, thinking that the law is more limiting than it truly is.

The Center for Media and Social Impact, website is at Over the past several years has engaged in studies in various industries that rely on copyright law and specifically fair use. Studies about the understanding or misunderstanding and knowledge of copyright in particularly fair use law within that industry, those industries include academic libraries, media, education generally, which is K through 12 plus higher ed. The visual arts community which look at museums, publishers of art materials, artist themselves, journalist, look at the industry of journalism. All of these industries and there were others rely on fair use.

And what these studies found, I believe there are 12 or 14 now. What these studies found was that across the board, meaning across all these different industries, it's not even just an education world or the library world. People misunderstood copyright law generally and fair use specifically, and more specifically, believed fair use to be more restrictive than it really is. One quote from the study of media literacy, educators, which again, it was K-12 through higher ed, and included private or outside entities like tutorial services, "Misunderstanding and confusion over copyright law create fear on the part of both users and creators of works who in turn sensor their own contributions to the progress of science and useful arts, thereby, disrupting the balance in copyright law intended by the founders."

And I think that's a great summation of the findings of all these studies. The bottom line or the point of the studies is that there is this great tendency to air on a side of thinking that, again, that the law is more restrictive. And that you're more likely to get in trouble than you really are. In other words that you're more likely to be—your institutions more likely to be subject to a lawsuit than it really is. The studies also found that—their understanding of law involve a lot of non-legal issues. Things that aren't even a legal issue people believe were law that prevented them from engaging in certain activities.

I tell you all this because the term use throughout these studies was self-censorship which—and censorship of course is a horrible word to all librarians. These studies, especially taken as a whole, point out the dire need for librarians and educators both to take a really close look at how accurate their understanding of the law is. And to what extent their actions are based on misunderstanding of the law because due to the misunderstandings that I just describe.

Decisions are being made to restrict actions like not use certain materials in a class that not requires certain type of material. Not provide students with disabilities with the type of assistance that they actually need because you think it's going to violate copyright law. These are some examples from the studies. This is the type of activity or actions that people engage in because of the misunderstanding. And that are coming together, means they're undermining the mission of their institution and also undermining the purpose of copyright law.

This is really a big issue. My solution for you to this is to—well, as a profession, but as your institution too needs to take a look at how you're treating copyright issues. And work with someone to help you determine how realistic your understanding of the law is and whether what you're doing is right or wrong. Think critically about not just what you do, but the sources that you rely on for knowledge about copyright law. And most of all, when you're working within your community, when you're working through this situation, come up with some good policies and procedures that can help you maintain understanding and consistency, and guide the actions of everyone in your community going forward.

This lesson is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information regarding application of copyright law in schools. Nothing in this lesson is intended to constitute legal advice, and nothing herein should be considered legal advice. If legal advice is required, the reader should consult a licensed attorney in his or her own state. Neither ABC-CLIO, LLC, nor the author makes any warranties or representations concerning the information contained in this lesson or the use to which it is put.

MLA Citation McCord, Gretchen. "Copyright: What You Need to Know: Librarians Self-Censor." School Library Connection, September 2015,

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Entry ID: 1980791

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