Tag Archives: copyright

Revisiting Section 108

Earlier today the U.S. Copyright Office released its long-awaited review of improvements to Section 108 of the Copyright Act, the section which grants limited, specific exceptions to copyright for libraries and archives. Over a decade ago the Office convened the Section 108 Study Group* to assess improvements to this section, and in 2008 that group produced its report. Since then (and with recent inquiries from the Office to stakeholders) we’ve been waiting to hear from the Copyright Office about its views on updates to Section 108. This Section 108 “Discussion Document” does just that.

Before getting into the document I want to start with two observations. The first is that Section 108 is horribly outdated. Most of its text is exactly the same as enacted in 1976. The piecemeal updates that have been added to address modern library and archives practices, including online uses, haven’t worked well and are awkward additions. I–and many others–have written about the need to update Section 108.

The second is that I’m leery of asking Congress to revise any part of the Copyright Act, including Section 108. From someone who thinks that copyright law already unnecessarily restricts access to lots of information in ways that have no positive effect on the copyright system’s underlying purpose–encouraging the creation and dissemination of new creative works–I don’t think Congress has a great track record on legislative revisions. Since the 1970s Congress has consistently made copyright terms longer, dramatically expanded the number of works protected, and has made using those works riskier. Asking Congress to revisit Section 108 could mean that it gets much worse, rather than better.

All that said, I think many of the Office’s suggestions are pretty good. I can’t go into every detail in this blog post–the Discussion Document is around 60 pages long, and it needs every one of those pages–so, for now, I thought I’d point out the top three positives I see in this document:

1) The Office suggests in a number of places removing hard numerical limits on the number of copies allowed. For preservation purposes, for example, the proposal would allow libraries, archives, and museums to reproduce works “as many times as is reasonably necessary for preservation and security.” This is a major problem under the current statute, which generally only allows for making three preservation copies. Perhaps more significantly, the proposal would also low eligible institutions to make incidental, temporary copies that are needed for making resulting preservation copies and for copies made for users. This is important when thinking about digital access because it would eliminate concerns about whether 108 can apply at all when incidental copies are made in the course of transfer from one machine to another.

2) It would expand the categories of works to which Section 108 applies. The current statute makes several Section 108 exceptions inapplicable to musical works, pictorial, graphic or sculptural works, and to motion picture or other audiovisual works. That restriction currently limits 108’s usefulness–and makes it all the more difficult to understand and apply–without providing a clear benefit for rightsholders of those kinds of works. This document also reframes how the Section 108 exceptions would apply to “published” versus “unpublished” works (the current Section 108 treats unpublished works differently, with the idea that unlike published works, there generally isn’t a commercial market to be harmed by the use of those materials ). The new proposal opts instead to make distinctions based on whether the work was ever “disseminated to the public” by the copyright owner. “Publication” is a notoriously difficult concept, so the move away from it to something a bit broader is welcome, though I’m not sure the concept of “disseminated to the public” is going to be easier to apply in practice.

3) It suggests that institutions should be able to provide remote digital access to users, albeit in some cases limited to one user at a time, for a limited time. This most directly applies to works “not disseminated to the public,” (i.e. unpublished works). For archives, this enhancement could be significant when thinking about how to provide access to preservation copies. Would an online reading room, with technology to allow for controlled digital lending, be permissible under these terms?

The Office’s 108 document also has parts that are likely to cause some controversy. One big one is a suggestion that eligible libraries, archives, and museums could be exempt from copyright liability for violating non-negotiable contract terms that prohibit institutions from engaging in preservation activities otherwise permitted under Section 108. I think this is an incredibly important suggestion, given the number of click-wrap, consumer-oriented license agreements that libraries enter into so they can provide electronic access to their patrons. Many of those contracts prohibit making copies necessary for preservation purposes, but if libraries aren’t saving copies there is a great risk that in the long term, those works may one day become entirely inaccessible to everyone.

Another part of the document likely to cause some controversy is the requirement that eligible institutions implement reasonable digital security measures. I understand the desire for such a limitation, but this is an area where the devil is going to be in the details. Who decides what is reasonable is an open question, and how compliance with that provision is monitored and assessed could be extremely burdensome for some institutions.

Overall, I have to say that I’m impressed. I think the Office did good work in pulling together the results of the Section 108 Study Group report as well as feedback from stakeholders in creating this document. As proposed, the Section 108 envisioned in this document still wouldn’t provide all or even most of what libraries, archives, and museums need to fulfill their missions,  and fair use would remain an important and probably overriding consideration when making uses of copyrighted works. But, as a sort of safe harbor for institutions seeking certainty for activities that they commonly engage in, the types of improvements outlined in this document would be welcome and a great help in facilitating modern (as opposed to 1970s-era) libraries, archives, and museums.


* The 108 study group was jointly convened by the The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation program of the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office.

Does Fair Use Affect Academic Authors’ Incentive to Write? Some Lessons from Authors of Works from the GSU Course Reserves Case

This post was co-authored by David Hansen and Brandon Butler and cross posted on The Taper and on Duke University Libraries’ Scholarly Communications Blog.

Copyright law in the U.S. is premised on the idea that exclusive rights given to authors act as an incentive for them to create and disseminate new works, which ultimately benefit the public. Does it actually have that effect, particularly for academic authors? And if so, how does the scope of limitations on copyright, such as fair use, affect the strength of that incentive?

It’s an interesting question, and one that seemed to concern the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals when it first weighed in on the Cambridge University Press v. Patton GSU e-reserves fair use case (read more things we’ve written about that case here and here). The court explained:

If copyright’s utilitarian goal is to be met, we must be careful not to place overbroad restrictions on the use of copyrighted works, because to do so would prevent would-be authors from effectively building on the ideas of others. Some unpaid use of copyrighted materials must be allowed in order to prevent copyright from functioning as a straightjacket that stifles the very creative activity it seeks to foster. If we allow too much unpaid copying, however, we risk extinguishing the economic incentive to create that copyright is intended to provide.

Since fair use is to be assessed “in light of the purposes of copyright,” that analytical framework seems spot on. But how can we tell if particular types of fair use–e.g., use of excerpts from books for classroom uses–hurt or help incentives to create and disseminate new works? One way to make this assessment is to look at the use “from the point of view of the reasonable copyright owner,” which is the approach the Supreme Court identified in Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539, 550 (1985). What is the perspective of the “reasonable copyright owner?”

A Survey of GSU Authors

We thought one way to find that perspective would be to ask authors who are routinely on both sides of the copyright equation, creating and reusing copyrighted works. Specifically, we thought we would ask the authors of the works that form the basis of the GSU lawsuit. That case involves a large number of academic works; at trial the plaintiff-publishers claimed 74 instances of infringement  for use of excerpts of works uploaded to GSU course websites over three semesters. Those works were associated with 112 living authors and editors, and for most (79) we were able to identify current contact information. (Big thanks to Brandon’s research fellow Sedef Ayalp!)

We developed a survey with ten questions to see whether these authors knew about the case, whether they approved of GSU’s uses being treated as fair use, and whether they themselves make fair use of others’ academic works in their teaching. The questions were designed to shed some light on our hypothesis: that most academics expect their works to be used freely for teaching, partly because they make such uses themselves. If we are right, fair use should favor these uses to the extent they would have no negative effect on the authors’ incentives to create. (The incentives of publishers are a separate issue.)

In total, we received 18 responses. That was enough to pique our interest, though we don’t want to overstate the results or extrapolate from them; this was a survey of a small group of people for which respondents self-selected participation. Nevertheless, we did see responses that were consistent with our hypothesis, at least as applied to this group of respondents. We’re sharing the results here in hopes that it will interest you as well and spur more research on how authors think about fair use.


First, we asked about familiarity with the suit. Eleven respondents said they were not even aware of the suit prior to the survey, and seven indicated familiarity. When asked “Were you consulted by the publishers before this lawsuit was filed?” all respondents answered “no.”

As for the substance of the lawsuit, for a baseline we asked about which side the author tended to support. Most indicated strong support for GSU, or took a neutral position. One author indicated strong support for the publishers.

Table 1 – Responses to “Based on what you know about the suit, do you as an author or editor of the works used by GSU faculty support either side of the” dispute?

Answer Responses
Strongly Support GSU 11
Support GSU 1
I am neutral 5
Support Publishers 0
Strongly Support Publishers 1

When asked about incentive effects, most said that these types of uses had no effect on their motivation to produce new works, while one person said that it had a negative effect. Five respondents indicated that these types of uses actually had a strong
positive effect on writing new works

Table 2 –  “How does the use of your work in ways similar to how GSU faculty used it–unpaid excerpts available to enrolled students through a secure online course page–affect your motivation to produce new works?”

Answer Responses
Strong negative effect on writing new works 0
Negative effect on writing new works 1
No effect 11
Positive effect on writing new works 1
Strong positive effect on writing new works 5

Getting down into how royalties in particular factor into these authors’ incentive to write, most respondents indicated that it wasn’t a factor at all.

Table 3 – How important is the expectation of royalties in your motivation to write works like the one at issue in this case?

Answer Responses
Extremely important (e.g., I don’t write unless I expect royalties) 0
Very important 0
Moderately important 3
Slightly important 4
Not at all important (e.g., I happily write without any expectation of royalties) 10

We also asked a few other questions about royalties and about how these authors may have made their own uses of excerpts in courses they have taught. You can see the full set of questions and responses (minus a free-text response field since those responses may reveal personally identifying information) here.

Conclusions and Reflections

As we say above, this is certainly not enough data to prove or disprove our hypothesis about what academic authors actually believe or do. It is nevertheless encouraging that our limited data is consistent with what we would expect to see if academic authors write with the expectation that their works would be subject to broad fair use for educational purposes. This is a theory of fair use with deep roots. Alan Latman’s study of fair use, published in 1958 as part of the Copyright Office’s review of the law, explains, “One theory behind such permissible copying is the implied consent of the copyright owner. In many cases, duplication of portions of his works should be desired by the author for its beneficial effects.” This is consistent with the overall incentives-based approach to copyright; uses an author would welcome are, presumably, uses that would not diminish the author’s incentive to write and publish her work. These should get strong fair use protection. (Like Latman, we believe the scope of fair use goes beyond what implied consent would cover; those uses to which an author would consent if provided the opportunity have a particularly strong claim to fair use, but author consent is not the end-all-be-all of fair use.)

Another notable aspect of the survey responses is the total disconnect between the authors of these works and the lawsuit brought by their publishers. Most were unaware of the suit, and none were consulted by the publishers before the lawsuit was filed or as it was being litigated. The law does not require author consent to lawsuits like this, where the publisher (presumably) holds the copyright or an exclusive license to the underlying work. (Although, one interesting aspect of the GSU case is how many of their claims the publishers had to abandon because they could not prove copyright ownership.) Once the transfer or license is made, the publisher is empowered to enforce the rights it has acquired. Authors, courts, policymakers, and universities should consider this potential disconnect between authors and publishers as they make key decisions about copyright law and policy.

Authors faced with a publishing contract  that includes a copyright transfer or license should consider whether they trust the publisher to enforce those rights in ways consistent with academic values and expectations. While in theory these uses should be (and so far have been) protected by fair use, authors who want to be sure that their expectations about educational use will be followed may want to explore publishing in open access venues or self-archiving in repositories using open licenses, like the suite offered by Creative Commons. The disconnect between authors and publishers further validates the efforts of organizations like the Authors Alliance and SPARC, who work to empower authors to use their rights to enable broad access and reuse, and to educate publishers about modes of distribution that better fit author needs.

Courts and policymakers should keep the author-publisher distinction in mind as they weigh amicus briefs and white papers from publishers and their trade associations. These advocacy pieces often blur the line between authors and publishers, placing publishers in the shoes of authors and warning that decisions favoring fair use or open access may undermine scholarship. Publishers’ incentives and their copyright policy preferences may diverge substantially from those of authors.

Universities and libraries should consider this disconnect as they make decisions about which kinds of publication models to support. Like courts and policymakers, universities and libraries are often told that established publishers are indispensable stewards of the scholarly record. These arguments ring hollow if publisher choices about how to exploit and enforce copyrights come apart from academic interests and values.

We hope to do more research to learn more about the incentives and expectations of academic authors. Until then, we hope this preliminary sketch has been helpful and will point others in useful directions for their own research.

Fair use is for students, and artists, and researchers, and …

Last Fair Use Week post!  Today I want to highlight, via a short video, a student project here at Duke that demonstrates really well the kinds of common transformative uses that fair use supports on campus. “Transformative use” has become a major part of the fair use analysis, starting from when Judge Pierre Leval articulated the concept in his 1990 article, Toward a Fair Use Standard.  In 1994, the Supreme Court in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music Inc. explained:

“The central purpose of this investigation is to see, in Justice Story’s words, whether the new work merely “supersede[s] the objects” of the original creation, or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.” . . . Such works thus lie at the heart of the fair use doctrine’s guarantee of breathing space within the confines of copyright, and the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use.” (citations omitted)

Changing purpose by adding new “expression, meaning or message” to the works of others represents much of what is done with material in special collections and archives. Those reworkings can come in the form of scholarly commentary, new artistic works, or even class projects.  Below you’ll find a video about an interesting combination of those things.

This project sprung out of a course taught at Duke last semester by Professor Kearsley Stewart on Global Narratives of HIV/AIDS. Students in the course were asked to work with the papers of medical anthropologist Maria de Bruyn, a collection held by Duke’sDavid Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library. Among that collection are materials from conferences which document views (some of which are highly negative) about individuals and groups affected by HIV/AIDS. 

Students, including Ryan Fitzgerald who is in the video, went through those materials and were asked to assess them and comment on them through their own reworkings of the originals. They made copies of the originals and then employed Humumentism,  as laid out by Tom Phillips in his book A Humument, to work over the texts with their own artistic expression to create a new narrative. If you’re interested, you can read more about the class and its collaboration with the Rubenstein Library, the workshop the class held with poet Kelly Swain, and watch the these three videos (1, 2, and 3) of Duke Students Ryan Fitzgerald, Sarah Rapaport, and Edom Tilahun presenting on their work.  A special thanks especially to Ryan Fitzgerald, Rachel Ingold and Kearsley Stewart for help and information for the video. 

Happy fair use week!