A Crisis—as in School Closures Due to Coronavirus—Justifies Fair Use, Say Librarians

A group of college, university, and public librarians released a statement outlining why they believe the extraordinary circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic meet qualifications for fair use within copyright law. 

As librarians and their fellow educators attempt to navigate teaching remotely, many are concerned about copyright laws for books and other texts. A group of college, university, and public librarians released a statement Friday outlining why they believe the extraordinary circumstances meet qualifications that would extend fair use beyond its usual parameters. While the statement only specifically addresses the many colleges and universities that have gone to remote learning for the spring semester, the same issues face K-12 educators and their analysis of the copyright law and fair use standards would apply to their teaching as well.

"This Statement is meant to provide clarity for U.S. colleges and universities about how copyright law applies to the many facets of remote teaching and research in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. We write this as copyright specialists at colleges, universities, and other organizations supporting higher education in the U.S. and Canada who work every day with faculty, staff, and librarians to enable them to make ethical and legal choices about copyright issues in online teaching.

"The United States is in a time of crisis. As of this writing, more than 200 universities and colleges have moved to remote teaching. These moves aim to promote public health by slowing the spread of the disease, while maintaining at least some of the important functions higher education plays in teaching, learning, and research. We have heard concerns that copyright may pose impediments to a rapid shift to remote instruction, or conversely, that copyright is not relevant. While legal obligations do not automatically dissolve in the face of a public health crisis, U.S. copyright law is, thankfully, well equipped to provide the flexibility necessary for the vast majority of remote learning needed at this time."

Read: Tackling Copyright Concerns When Taking Storytime Online

It goes on to analyze each of the four factors required for "fair use" within the current situation and comes to the conclusion that materials should be available in this "time of crisis."

"It is evident that making materials available and accessible to students in this time of crisis will almost always be a fair use. As long as we are being thoughtful in our analysis and limiting our activities to the specific needs of our patrons during this time of crisis, copyright law supports our uses," the statement says. "The fair use doctrine accommodates the flexibility required by our shared public health crisis, enabling society to function and progress while protecting human life and safety.

"We also encourage campuses to begin contemplating the longer-term needs this situation presents. While fair use is absolutely appropriate to support the heightened demands presented by this emergency, if time periods extend further, campuses will need to investigate and adopt solutions tailored for the long-term."

They also admit that creators and copyright holders may disagree with or be worried about the ramificaxtions of this analysis and determination.

"Some creators and other copyright owners may find this analysis concerning," the statement says. "We offer this analysis from a place of deep respect for creators—and to provide a practical lens through which our colleagues working as instructors and in instructional support positions can keep copyright in mind despite the seismic changes they’re implementing in support of public health.

"We encourage the use of already-licensed online content, openly licensed, and public domain alternatives, and working with content vendors to find mutually agreed-on ways to expand existing access to support social distancing for instruction and research. We commend vendors who have stepped up to provide free access to certain resources through the end of the current academic term."

The release provides a link to allow others to endorse the statement, as well as a link to Resources on Copyright & Emergency Remote Teaching & Research.

Read the full statement below.





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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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