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This paper provides a brief overview of the current state of copyright law in the United States, focusing on the negative impacts of these policies on libraries and patrons. The article discusses four challenges current copyright law presents to libraries and the public in general, highlighting three concrete ways intellectual property law interferes with digital library services and systems. Finally, the author suggests that a greater emphasis on copyright literacy and a commitment among the library community to advocate for fairer policies is vital to correcting the imbalance between the interests of the public and those of copyright holders.
In July 2010, the library community applauded when Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced new exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Those with visual disabilities and the librarians who serve them can now circumvent digital rights management (DRM) software on e-books to activate a read-aloud function. (1) In addition, higher education faculty in departments other than film and media studies can now break through DRM software to include high-resolution film clips in class materials and lectures. However, their students cannot, since only those who are pursuing a degree in film can legally do the same. (2) That means that English students who want to legally include high-resolution clips from the critically acclaimed film Sense and Sensibility in their final projects on lane Austin's novel will have to wait another three years, when the Librarian of Congress will again review the DMCA.
The fact that these new exemptions to the DMCA were a cause for celebration is one indicator of the imbalanced state of the copyright regulations that control creative intellectual property in this country. As the consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge asserted, "We continue to be disappointed that the Copyright Office under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act can grant extremely limited exemptions and only every three years. This state of affairs is an indication that the law needs to be changed." (3)
This paper provides a brief overview of the current state of U.S. copyright law, especially developments during the past fifteen years, with a focus on the negative impact these policies have had and will continue to have on libraries, librarians, and the patrons they serve. This paper does not provide a comprehensive and impartial primer on copyright law, a complex and convoluted topic, instead identifying concerns about the effects an out-of-balance intellectual property system is having on the library profession, library services, and creative expression in our digital age. As with any area of public policy, the battles over intellectual property issues create an every fluctuating copyright environment, and therefore, this article is written to be current with policy developments as of October 2011. Finally, this paper recommends that librarians seek to better educate themselves about copyright law, and some innovative responses to an overly restrictive system, so that we can effectively advocate on our own behalf, and better serve our patrons.
THE STATE OF U.S. COPYRIGHT LAW
Copyright law is a response to what is known as the "progress clause" of the Constitution, which charges Congress with the responsibility "to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts ... to this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work." (4) Fair use, a statutory exception to U.S. copyright law, is a complex subject, but a brief examination of the principle gets to the heart of copyright law itself. When determining fair use, courts consider
1. the purpose and character of the use;
2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work. (5)
While fair use is an "affirmative defense" to copyright infringement, (6) invoking fair use is not the same as admitting to copyright infringement. Teaching, scholarship, and research, as well as instances in which the use is not-for-profit and noncommercial, are all legitimate examples of fair use, even if fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis. (7)
Despite the byzantine nature of copyright law, there are four key issues that present the greatest challenges and obstacles to librarians and people in general: the effect of the DMCA on the principle of fair use; the dramatic extension of copyright terms codified by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act; the disappearance of the registration requirement for copyright holders; and the problem of orphan works.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)
The DMCA has been controversial since its passage in 1998. Title I of the DMCA implements two 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties that obligate member states to enforce laws that make tampering with DRM software illegal. The DMCA added chapter 12 to the U.S. Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. [section][section] 1201-1205), and it criminalized the trafficking of "technologies designed to circumvent access control devices protecting copyrighted material from unauthorized copying or use." (8) While film studios, e-book publishers, and record producers have the right to protect their intellectual property from illegal pirating, the DMCA struck a serious blow to the principle of fair use, placing librarians and others who could likely claim fair use when copying a DVD or PDF file in a Catch-22 scenario. While the act of copying the file may be legal according to fair use, breaking through any DRM technology that prevents that copying is now illegal. (9)
The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act
While the Copyright Act of 1790 only provided authors and publishers with twenty-eight years of copyright protection, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 increased the copyright terms of all copyrighted works that were eligible for renewal in 1998 to ninety-five …