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Is a Code of Best Practices Enough?

Just before the holidays, a team of investigators featuring representatives of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Center for Social Media, and the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property (PIJIP) released a report detailing the results of Phase One of their progress toward drafting an academic and research librarians’ code of best practices for interpreting and applying copyright doctrine. These same individuals have previously collaborated on best practice codes for media literacy educators and for documentary filmmakers. Phase One of their research for development of this particular code of best practices entailed interviewing sixty-five librarians. Interviewees were asked about their personal understanding as well as their institutions’ policies and practices with respect to fair use and other exemptions under copyright law. The report summarizes the responses in five categories of librarianship practice: support for teaching and learning, support for scholarship, preservation, exhibition and public outreach, and serving disabled communities. Not surprisingly, the responses greatly vary, which accurately reflects the present (mis)understanding of fair use across academia. Most respondents expressed a lack of institutional support, namely time and expertise from legal counsel offices, and an increasing demand from faculty and researchers for fair use determinations. Without ready and well-versed support from administration, and a fear of retribution levied by publishers of content, librarians have, as concluded by the investigative team, clung to outdated guidelines, hesitated to employ fair use to the fullest, and failed to promote access to information, which is the librarians’ duty and charge.

At the end of the report, the investigators offer a list of suggestions aimed toward improving the situation that academic and research librarians find themselves in. Naturally, the first suggestion is the adoption and employment of the code of best practices, which the team aims to publicly disseminate by 2012. Assumedly, this Code of Best Practices will replace the outmoded guidelines that most libraries still use in one modified form or another. The remaining suggestions address the issues with institutional support and publisher threat. Institutional support, the investigators propose, should take the form of the creation of a dedicated copyright office in the Library or through the campus legal office. Publisher threat should be addressed at the time of license negotiation. While these suggestions are all material and useful, their are not novel or unheard of. A Code of Best Practices is a collective understanding of how fair use applies — same as the outdated CONTU guidelines, which are still used in one modified form or another, and other organizationally prepared suggestions (e.g. ALA, CCC, AAUP) for application of fair use in libraries. The Code of Best Practices may be a statement of the currently agreed-to understanding by librarians as to the application of fair use but what still lacks is a judicial or legislative clarification of fair use as applied to the ever-evolvingĀ  modes of publishing and content delivery. Institutional buy-in is also universally desired and needed. However, as long as libraries are viewed by administrations as a cost center rather than as an asset to be supported and supplied, devotion of resources to development of copyright offices or dedicated personnel will not come easily.

I applaud the work of the investigative team. I have had the pleasure of being taught by two of its members. I look forward to the completion and publication of the Code of Best Practices. However, I do not feel that this will be the answer that we in the field are needing. Faculty and students need to be encouraged to become copyright aware. The requirement of the HEOA that universities distribute to students copyright information targeted toward anti-piracy is one way that this tactic is in force. Department chairs and deans should invite librarians or campus counsel to departmental or college meetings to discuss copyright and fair use. Faculty should assume greater responsibility for making fair use determinations and work in greater concert with librarians. As one of the interviewees stated, faculty have a greater understanding of their educational goals and curriculum. Administrative or institutional support is important; however, education and responsibilities amongst faculty and students are also key.

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