April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Interview: ALA’s Carrie Russell Talks About Copyright in the Classroom

SLJ talks to Carrie Russell, director of the American Library Association’s Program on Public Access to Information, about her book Complete Copyright for K–12 Librarians and Educators, a useful tool to help school librarians and teachers better understand copyright law.

Carrie Russell

Why is it so important that educators understand copyright law?

The purpose of the copyright law is to advance learning by enabling the broad dissemination of knowledge, creative works, and information. Educators are stewards of that purpose for their educational or library community. This means not only that educators and librarians should care about copyright, they’re responsible for defending the educational mission that’s key to the purpose of the law. As professionals, educators and librarians must demonstrate their strong support of users’ rights to information.  One way to do this—understand the exceptions allowed for educators and librarians—and exercise those options. Don’t break the law, but don’t spurn creativity and learning.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions librarians have about copyright law?

Some people think that copyright is a bunch of laws.  It’s just one law—the copyright law of 1976—that that’s changed by amendments, but this does not occur that frequently. Others think that there’s a set of rules that one can follow that provides a safe harbor from liability. The “rules” I’m primarily talking about are fair use guidelines. Guidelines—when you really think about them—are nonsense.

What are some important changes in copyright law that librarians need to know?

Since more and more materials will be acquired through license agreements, copyright law seems less important.  But everything you have with copyright law (fair use, etc,) should transfer to license environment and contract agreements. That would be the gold standard, difficult to achieve, but we need to keep pushing the rights holders to craft licenses that reflect the balance between the rights of users and the interest of rights holders that we see in the copyright law.

What are some important ways that technology has complicated copyright law for educators?

Digital technology—as we all know—makes it possible to copy, distribute, and modify copyrighted works in digital formats. That’s the biggie because one might feel that since this technology enables these functions, one should always be able to use them. And because “everything is on the Web,” it must be free to use—otherwise people wouldn’t post materials on the Web.  So I think educators need to focus even more on what the law is and is not, what is fair use, and what is plagiarism.

Does copyright affect elementary, middle and high school librarians/educators differently?

I am not sure if there is a dramatic difference. There is the issue—when do I start teaching kids about the copyright law?  Third grade? Fifth grade? The reality is you have to teach it all of the time. I’m not talking about giving a lecture every semester.  I am talking about integrating the ideas of creativity and authorship in teaching.

You say copyright never catches up to technology. So what needs to be addressed pretty quickly?

I’m of the opinion that our copyright law is great as it is. The law should be amenable to technological change—flexible enough to be applied.  Fair use allows this flexibility. I don’t believe that Congress intended for copyright law to be rigid—a black and white kind of thing. Crafting the law to address every possible situation isn’t possible and will lead to an overly complex, rule oriented patchwork that will not make sense and will restrict our ability to learn and create, and even impact free expression.

What surprised you the most about your recent informal copyright survey of librarians?

That the majority of the librarians who completed the survey didn’t know the purpose of copyright.

You’ve said that librarians make overly conservative decisions because they’re afraid of copyright litigation. So what’s the most important message that librarians can take away from your book?

I would say “don’t be afraid to think.”  Making fair use determinations is ambiguous—you don’t know if you are right or wrong—but it’s also based on common sense thinking. If you refuse to think, and make conservative decisions—instead of working with teachers and students to carve back excessive copying or online posting while still meeting the desired teaching or learning goal—then you’re doing a disservice to your school. I’m pretty brutal about it. I’d like librarians and educators to feel like they have more involvement with copyright issues and concerns. Take action, think about long term implications of short term decision making, and be flexible—and remember that you have a professional mission and copyright need not get in the way. It should instead enable your mission.


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About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.



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