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U.S. Copyright Law for Librarians — from Lesley Ellen Harris

U.S. Copyright Law for Librarians

Librarians and information professionals are often seen as the gatekeepers to content. In that role, they also become interpreters of copyright law and licensing agreements.

May I make one copy of an article from a licensed journal? 

Lesley Ellen Harris

Does fair use apply to the photocopying of 20 articles for an in-house seminar? 

Do we need permission to use an image we found through Google images? 

These are some of the many questions librarians face on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately copyright law is not straightforward and there is no book of “copyright rules.” Rather the Copyright Act is interpretative and we must apply our particular facts to the law to determine when and whether permission is needed from a copyright owner. Below are five facts about U.S. copyright law that all librarians should know.


Fair Use Is Ambiguous and Flexible

Fair use is intentionally ambiguous. You can never know for sure whether your use of content falls within the fair use factors (unless it is decided by a judge in a court of law). That is how the provision (Section 107) in the U.S. Copyright Act was written. The plus side is that fair use is flexible and is adaptable to changing needs and uses of content. Taking time to understand the four fair use factors — purpose and character of use, nature of the copyrighted work, amount of the portion copied, and effect of the use on the potential market of the work — and how they have been applied in court cases will help you make your own judgment calls when applying fair use in your organization.


There Is No Substitute for Obtaining Copyright Permission

If you have determined that you need copyright permission to use content, then you must obtain permission before using that content. If you email, fax, snail mail and call a copyright owner but never receive a reply, all your efforts do not entitle you to use that content without the copyright owner’s permission.

Occasionally You May Need to Obtain Permission to Use U.S. Government Publications

Although many U.S. government documents and materials are not protected by copyright and are free for anyone to use, not all government materials are available for free use. The U.S. government may own copyright in materials through an assignment or bequest. As an illustration, a consultant who prepares a report for the government will own copyright in that report unless they assign it in writing to the government.

Consult Your License Agreements on a Regular Basis

When you have a license agreement with a periodical or database, each use of an article or portion of that periodical or database is governed by the terms and conditions of that license. So if you want to share a PDF full-text article with your boss or an outside consultant, review the terms and conditions of the license to see what is permitted.

Online Images May Be Protected by Copyright Law

Images found online may be protected by copyright law. Many people think that the images found in their Internet searches are copyright-free. That is not true. Just because an image is online does not mean that it is not protected by copyright. So always start with the assumption that those images are protected by copyright unless you investigate and determine their copyright status.


What are vital copyright issues to you?




Lesley Ellen Harris


Please join my free copyright e-letter at

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MLTW2015: Copyright Issues and DoD Funded Research — 8 December 10 AM

Introduction: Christine Dail, Librarian, Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC); Vakare Valaitis, Policy Analyst, DTIC, “Copyright Issues & DoD Funded Research,” with Q&A

Summary. Does Public Release mean the public can do what they want with government content?
Government copyright is complex and this session will open your eyes to the different types and their
handling. DTIC collects, organizes, indexes, preserves, and disseminates Scientific and Technical
Information (STI). How is this handled for federal agencies including DoD? CENDI is an interagency
working group managing the information generated by federal government R&D activities. Hear more
about these two areas important to military librarians serving their communities.
• Learn about the different types of copyright in federal government information
• Learn about efforts managed and being worked on by CENDI to benefit federal STI
• Become a resource for protecting while disseminating items covered by government copyright.

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SLA: Copyright for content creators

Attention bloggers, newsletter contributors, white paper and book authors, and developers of website content:

Do you know how to–

  • License your works for use by others?
  • Protect your work under copyright?
  • Get permission to incorporate or adapt third-party materials in your blog posts or other publications?

Get the answers to these questions and more in CCM800 Copyright Essentials for Content Creation and Distribution , which begins Monday, November 10 – just one week from today!

Dates:  November 10 – 24 (Full schedule)

Instructor:  Lesley Ellen Harris of

Format:  Live online sessions, discussion list participation, and independent reading

CCM800 is offered as part of the Certificate in Copyright Management program offered by SLA, but may be taken à la carte.

What are people saying about CCM courses?

“I thought I knew a lot about copyright; however, every week I learn something new.” 

“The combination of live seminars and assigned readings was great for providing information and then reinforcing the concepts.” 

“We have built a great network of resources to assist us in our day-to-day work.”

Are you an SLA member?  Find out about discounts here.

Questions?  Send a message to


Carolyn J. Sosnowski, MLIS

Director, Education and Information Services


331 S. Patrick St.

Alexandria, VA 22314

Tel: +1.703.647.4914  Fax: +1.703.647.4901


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