Tag Archives: fair use

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 The first is that Section 108 is horribly outdated.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 for Authors

Happy fair use week! I’m sure many of you have already taken note that February 20 to 24 is a week-long celebration of copyright’s fair use doctrine. The organizers at fairuseweek.org have done a great job collecting information about events and sharing resources. This ARL-commissioned fair use myths infographic is among my favorites.

One of the things I plan to do this week is talk about how important fair use is for authors. Duke, like many universities, is home to thousands of faculty and student authors who produce a tremendous quantity of creative work. In support of them, on February 23,  the Duke University Libraries Office of Copyright & Scholarly Communication will host a workshop for graduate student authors who have questions about fair use in writing their dissertations and for other writing projects. If you’re at Duke and interested, we invite you to click the link above and register!

Why Authors’ Perspectives on Fair Use Matter

At our fair use workshop I intend to emphasize to those grad students the importance of expressing their views, as authors, about what types of copying and reuse they believe are reasonable under fair use. To frame that discussion,  I plan to have participants talk about this perspective given by the Supreme Court in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, which does a nice job highlighting the special relationship that authors have with the fair use doctrine:

“[T]he author’s consent to a reasonable use of his copyrighted works ha[d] always been implied by the courts as a necessary incident of the constitutional policy of promoting the progress of science and the useful arts, since a prohibition of such use would inhibit subsequent writers from attempting to improve upon prior works and thus . . . frustrate the very ends sought to be attained.” Professor Latman, in a study of the doctrine of fair use commissioned by Congress for the revision effort . . . summarized prior law as turning on the “importance of the material copied or performed from the point of view of the reasonable copyright owner. In other words, would the reasonable copyright owner have consented to the use?” (citations omitted).

Reflecting on that quote, sometimes I think our understanding about author perspectives on copyright has been dominated by those who have strong economic interests in the sale of their work. For many years, groups such as the Authors Guild have been vocal advocates for their membership, which includes many trade book authors. But there are many other authors (historically, less vocal) with a different perspective, who create with sharing and readership as their dominant motivation, not making money. That includes many academics.

Authors Alliance

One group, the Authors Alliance (I am a member), has taken up the job of “promot[ing] authorship for the public good by supporting authors who write to be read.”  Authors Alliance has been working to give a powerful platform from which the views of these authors, including many academics, can be expressed. One of the issues that Authors Alliance has focused on is the importance of a strong fair use right for authors.

A good example comes from an amicus brief that Authors Alliance recently filed in the Georgia State University fair use e-reserves case. That case was initially brought in 2008 against GSU by Cambridge University Press,  Oxford University Press and Sage. It’s now on its second appeal before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case is largely about whether it was permissible under the fair use doctrine for GSU faculty to make excerpts of academic books available to students through the GSU electronic course reserves system.

Even though the GSU suit has been ongoing for nearly nine years (!), as far as I can tell, no one has bothered to give the courts the perspective of the actual authors of the excerpts at issue in that case. In its recent amicus brief, Authors Alliance did just that.  In a page and a half of direct quotes, the brief highlights some straightforward but until-now undocumented views of the authors who wrote the chapters and books used by GSU faculty in their classes. These included, for example, quotes like “I want my work to be read as widely as possible. I have no trouble with articles or individual chapters of my book being copied for use in the classroom. In fact, I welcome it.” (Carolyn Ellis, Professor of Communication at University of South Florida and an Authors Alliance member).

While the brief does a fantastic job of working through thorny legal questions about the application of copyright law to educational use of academic works, to me the most powerful and persuasive parts of the brief  are the statements from authors themselves about what they think should be permissible, and why. I don’t know whether those quotes will leave the same impression on the appellate court, but I am optimistic.

So, authors: speak up! Talk about why fair use is important for your own work and how it has helped you. And talk about how you want your work to be used by others, whether in the classroom, in new research and scholarship, or by readers more generally.