Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Copyright, Licensing and Digital Preservation

Chances are your understanding of copyright, and by extension copyright infringement is related to this advertisement.

But we're in a library program, of course we're not talking about breaking the law, right?

Here's the thing. Copyright can be tricky, and the internet only makes things more complicated, especially in terms of preservation. Digital data has created an additional problem in preservation by throwing licensing into the mix. Librarians and Archivists have to walk a thin line of providing adequate services and following convoluted laws that restrict them.  It's complex and messy and a very good place for a blog on Digital Preservation to start.

Let's start with some basics:
Copyright is the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same.
To license is a grant by the holder of a copyright or patent to another of any of the rights embodied in the copyright or patent short of an assignment of all rights
How does this effect digital preservation?

Well there are a few different answers to this question. The most basic is that digital content is different from physical content. We know how to take care of a book. We know what kind of temperature to keep a room that stores rare manuscripts. We know what kind of light to use. What's more is that we, the library professionals, own the book, manuscript or object. Now there may be other copies of that resource out there but we obtained the rights for the one in our collection.

Digital data is a bit different. Think in terms of subscriptions to e-journals. You're allowed access to that content as long as you are paying for it, and i bet if you were to read the terms of use you absentmindedly clicked to complete your registration process you'd find a list a mile long of ways you cannot share the information you are now allowed to look at. This is a process that isn't limited to e-journals. The music you buy from iTunes is coded so that you need a password to access it. It's meant for you and you alone. Remember last year when Netflix wanted to start a teared rate to dissuade people from password sharing? It's the same thing. You are paying for a service and Netflix wants to make sure that it is being used (and that they are compensated) it's consumers.  This is licensing at work. There is no transfer of ownership. Instead access is being granted, and it is being granted in very specific terms.

Copyright law wasn't designed for a digital age, and in truth it was designed to benefit a very specific set of people (bestselling authors, their estates, record companies, ect) and libraries and archives fall into a moral gray area. With digital works the rights that went hand in hand with preservation before end up in a battle, where the rights of an item, even after preserved can be retained by their original copyright holder, leaving the item preserved but unusable until the copyright expires. (Kastellec, 2012)

Licensing issues because a real problem when publishing companies see archives and libraries as competitors. It makes services like e-journals, magazines, and other subscription based content distributors hesitant to share their product. They can see it as an impeachment to therefore sales and find the monetary gain more beneficial than a lasting record of their product.(Kuny, 1998)

This isn't to say that all Copyright law is archaic. Sections 107 and 108 of the copyright law have been updated to provide better access to manuscripts, and deal with the rights that archives and scholar institutions may operate under in terms of preservation and reproductions, however these rights all fall under a category of "fair use." (Brooks, 2005)

All of these issues require honest and thoughtful communication to resolve. Ownership is important. An archives content is functionally useless if a research cannot use it in their published work.  It does no good to get involved in legal battles because an electronic service was distributed against a licensing agreement. The digital landscape is constantly changing and both preservation institutions and the law is fighting to keep up.

Some questions to think about:
  • Is there a point where the preservation of object becomes more important than it's copyright? Does preserving an object that cannot be effectively used undermine both the law and the purpose of an archive?
  • By copyright holders refusing to give permission to archives and libraries do they become responsible for the preservation of their work?
  • What are your personal experiences deal with copyright, copyright violation, or licensing? How can you apply these experiences to your LIS studies?


Brooks, T. (2005). Copyright & Fair Use. ARSC Journal, 36(2).

Kastellec, M. (2012). Practical Limits to the Scope of Digital Preservation. Information Technology & Libraries, 31(2), 63-71.

Kuny, T., & Cleveland, G. (1998). The digital library: myths and challenges. IFLA journal, 24, 107-113.

Lavoie, B., & Dempsey, L. (2004). Thirteen ways of looking at... digital preservation. D-Lib magazine, 10(7/8), 1082-9873.
Wallace, C. A. (2014). Archivists and the New Copyright Law. Georgia Archive, 6(2), 2.

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