Tackling Copyright Concerns When Taking Storytime Online

Teachers and librarians want to record themselves reading aloud and post the video publicly for kids to watch, but is it legal?

More and more teachers and librarians want to reach their students and young patrons after hours by recording themselves reading books and posting them online for students to watch from home. They are concerned, however, about copyright law. Is it legal to publicly post these recordings? Can only certain books be recorded and posted? 

SLJ asked American Library Association’s director of public policy and advocacy Carrie Russell to break down the copyright issues, if any, of these digital storytimes.

Storytime is a quintessential service of public and school libraries, right up there with library lending. It instills an invaluable love of reading in children and contributes to early literacy and later success at school. One would be hard pressed to find a person who does not value storytime.

Teachers and librarians asking if storytime is an infringement of copyright law when the reading is recorded and uploaded to YouTube or Facebook are essentially asking if the social benefits of storytime are lost once recorded and delivered by digital means. Common sense would tell us that storytime does not become illegal when it is digital, but the legal concern is real—technically.

In the online environment, copyright law does not say that user and library rights also apply to the digital environment. The copyright law was written in a different time, but Congress was prescient when including fair use which is technology-neutral. It allows us to assess a concern when we are just not sure, even in the digital environment. What we do know is that storytime online or in person is a “public performance,” an exclusive right of the copyright holder. The common fear in the digital environment is that the possibilities of infringement and market replacement are compounded.

An activity is infringing when one uses an exclusive right without the prior authorization from the rights holder. The rights holder is supposed to be the sole individual or entity that can market a work, and one way to market a work is through the exclusive right of public performance—storytelling, theatrical productions, Netflix movies. But storytime is an infringement that no one questions when the reading occurs in the library. Its value to the public outweighs the economic interests of the rights holder.

Because the law and the courts do not explicitly state that physical or digital storytime is lawful—which confounds people who want a definite answer—we must think and make a judgment call. We can make this determination in a structured way by considering the four factors of fair use:

  •  the purpose and character of your use
  •  the nature of the copyrighted work
  •  the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  •  the effect of the use upon the potential market

Making this decision should not be a burden in any sense of the word—it is a measured, reasonable judgment call.

We know that the purpose—the first factor of fair use—is a non-profit, educational and socially beneficial use, which is a good indication that the use is fair. The fourth factor—effect on the market for the work—is tiny, if not nonexistent. Highlighting a book is promotional, even when the performance is on YouTube. One is not displacing a sale or serving as a substitute to the work—even I would argue—if the work is available for purchase in audiobook form. An audiobook is not the same as storytime.

The second and third factors of fair use assess the level of creativity of the work and the amount used, respectively. Storytime uses highly creative works, even newly published works, read in their entirety. Storytime requires that one read aloud from an entire children’s book. Storytime will always fail on the second and third factors. In this situation, one can still make the judgment that storytime is lawful by considering the first and fourth factor only. In every fair-use analysis, one or two of the factors will weigh more heavily on the others. They are rarely equal in importance.

In addition to fair use, other factors can help you think through a copyright situation. The fact that hundreds of storytime performances can be found on YouTube and Facebook gives you an indication that the risk is low, and more significantly, a lot of people do not think that digital storytime is against the law. The public's behavior shapes the law and how we interpret it.

Yes, a rights holder could sue a librarian for reading on YouTube. A rights holder can decide to sue whomever they want. But this is ridiculous—who would sue a library or teacher for digital storytime? The case would be thrown out of court. The rights holder that brings the lawsuit would look despicable and get bad press. Moreover, nonprofit state institutions like many libraries and schools have liability protection and cannot be charged statutory damages—going to court is just not worth the trouble.

There are a cautious few who want to get permission before reading a book online “just to be safe.” They may feel that they should pay a fee to read aloud online. For those people, recognize that if you can pay a fee or ask permission does not mean that you should. That is not how the law works. If your use is fair, you do not have to seek permission. Moreover, establishing a permissions market for storytime by our own behavior would not be prudent and certainly not in the public interest.

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Rachel Herod

This is the response I received from Candlewick when requesting permission to create a YouTube video with one of their books:Thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, Candlewick Press discourages the use of our titles in the way you’ve described, as it violates the copyright of our authors and illustrators to have the entire contents of any of their works displayed for free on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. For that reason, we cannot grant permission for your request. We thank you in advance for understanding and for your interest in our titles.

Posted : Nov 12, 2019 07:09

Tamky Cummings

SLJ pull this article it is in the wrong and can lead to getting people in legal trouble. This is posted as a news article and it is an opinion piece with a lot of miss information.

Posted : May 31, 2019 01:03

Shoo Rayner

This article reads as though you are giving legal advice and I would suggest you take the post down immediately. Your post, being official-looking advice for all potential copyright breakers, might just be the one that publishers decide go after in a joint action, as a warning to all those whom you are giving awful advice to.This post is complete fantasy! Fair use will only ever relate to excerpts.What is the point of an author or illustrator spending years learning their trade, then even more years writing and illustrating a book, only for someone to think they can take all that work and make it theirs, and possibly profit from it? You have to be profiting in some way to make it worth your while recording and posting in the first place - maybe not monetary gain, but kudos, advertising your presenting skills, advertising you library or hoping to get a raise or new job title.Storytime in a library has a very limited audience who can then go on to borrow the book - here in the UK that leads to a micro-earning of public lending right for the author. Reading a whole book on Youtube - usually terribly badly, casting the author's work in a bad light - is made available to every pair of eyeballs in the world. That is not storytime, that is broadcasting.If you were promoting a book, you would show a part of the book and give a critique and encouragement to go and read the rest of it - a review. Or you would be reading an excerpt to advertise story time - We are all for that.It is quite simple - if you read a book aloud, record it on video and make it available digitally, you are breaking the law of copyright, which exists to protect author's and publisher's incomes. No wonder author incomes are lower now than ten years ago.If you look in the front of any book, you will find a clear copyright notice that says something like:"this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent..."Many books specifically refer to digital copies, but "otherwise circulated" covers it all.If you do not to read the agreement between you and the publisher, that is your choice. Copyright conditions are printed clearly in every book.It is clearly understood that fair use equals a sample. Giving away a whole book to the world on YouTube, or even on a school intranet, is theft, plain and simple.YouTube has algorithms to find when you use copyright music. They will soon be able to find you and shut down your channels.At the very least, you should contact the copyright holder to let them know your intentions and ask permission. That is a common courtesy. Fair use for a video is to show how great your storytime is - to show off YOUR skills as a storyteller - to encourage visits to the library.Reading a whole book means your members needn't bother visiting and borrowing.Reading a whole book on video in fact hastens the closure of libraries as soon there will be no point physically attending. You have given it all away - why bother physically visiting the library.As for schools - how are children ever going to learn to read if they just watch you reading on a video. Make learn to read videos instead - yes, quote real books on the fair use rule, but don't do all the work for them. Children are not going to learn to read if they don't ever get to hold a book in their hands.I read some of my stories on Youtube - but that is my choice and mine alone.Shoo Rayner I am not a Robot.I am the Chair of the Children's Writer's and Illustrators Committee of the Society of Authors UK

Posted : Apr 29, 2019 04:46

Carrie Russell

Just to clear up an obvious misconception, US copyright law is not the same as UK copyright law. We have fair use in the US, UK does not.

Posted : May 01, 2019 12:23

Rebecca Blake

Fair use does exist in the UK. From the British Library website: “The concept of fair usage exists within UK copyright law; commonly referred to as fair dealing, or free use and fair practice. It’s a framework designed to allow the lawful use or reproduction of work without having to seek permission from the copyright owner(s) or creator(s) or infringing their interest.” I would trust the assessment of the Chair of the Children's Writer's and Illustrators Committee of the Society of Authors UK when it comes to copyright law in the UK.There are so many problems in the arguments presented in this article, many of which are highlighted in the comments below. An issue that hasn't been mentioned the disrespect extended to authors – children's book writers and illustrators – as communicated in the advice, "The rights holder that brings the lawsuit would look despicable and get bad press.” What a terrible position to put authors in. On top of that, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the public performance of a storybook would be regarded as "fair use.” Fair use is a tricky concept in copyright law, and there is huge variance on how courts interpret fair use. On so many levels, this article does a disservice to librarians and authors.

Posted : May 22, 2019 04:54

Tamky Cummings

You are misrepresenting the fair use law. It does address the digital aspects. You can not post it publicly it must be in a closed system.

Posted : May 31, 2019 01:04

lol @shoorayner

Amen brother! I agree 100%! This article does seem like legal advice, which is bad for a non-lawyer to give, and they should listen to your warning of publishers bringing a JOINT-ACTION lawsuit against the author for writing it! I've seen it a hundred times.You're also spot-on with your points on library storytimes on Youtube:-They make author's and illustrator's works their own, making years of education and creation useless somehow- libraries ARE profiting from the several dozen Youtube storytimes in various non-monetary ways. The public goodwill gained should be going to the authors, not these community institutions!- Youtube storytime books ARE badly read, which reflects poorly on the author. I remember the time I saw a hamfisted middle-school Hamlet production and I lost a lot of respect for Shakespeare- Authors ARE losing a lot of income to these insidious Youtube storytimes. Hundreds, if not thousands of people who would otherwise rush to their local bookstore and buy a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar are now just watching it with their infants for FREE. They might as well be foreclosing on the author's homes-People posting library storytimes on Youtube are THIEVES who haven't read the copyright notices in the books and their channels will soon be SHUT DOWN. I don't care that the library storytimes are free and accessible to everyone; if you can't make it there in person, for ANY reason, no way should you be allowed to view it through any other medium-You're right, it would be "fair use for a video is to show how great your storytime is - to show off YOUR skills as a storyteller - to encourage visits to the library", but these Youtube library slimeballs aren't doing that, they're just giving away the plots to toddler books for FREE! Plus, like you said earlier, they're unethically profiting off other people's work in non-monetary ways, like encouraging visits to the library and showing off their storytimes, which is WRONG- Reading entire books on Youtube will 'hasten the closure of libraries as soon as there will be no point in physically attending'. I agree, as soon as there's no point in physically attending, libraries will be closed down. Also, who's going to buy the cow, or in this case borrow the cow for free, when the story is being performed on Youtube for free? In fact, these so-called 'public libraries' seem to be giving away EVERYTHING for free! Who will buy books at all when the public library is freely lending them? The establishment of public libraries will soon hasten the end of the publishing industry! We need to go much further than bring joint-action action lawsuits against public library storytime readers. In order to truly protect authors and the publishing companies we must abolish ALL PUBLIC LIBRARIES!- And as for your point about schools only teaching reading through Youtube videos? That is insane! It's so insane I can barely believe it's happening. Thank you very much for bringing this crazy practice to light, I had no idea schools were only teaching kids to reading by showing them Youtube storytime videos. And you're right, kids should be watching learn-to-read videos instead of being read to, but only if they're not learning to read an entire book.We need to put REAL books in kid's hands. Books they have bought and paid for, not borrowed for free from some author-destroying 'public' library. Certainly there is nothing to be gained from listening to stories at these awful libraries and there is a double-certainty that storytime video recordings are PREVENTING children from learning to read, taking money away from authors and publishers, bringing about the end of public libraries, and also profiting the public libraries. Shoo Rayner, thank you so much for bringing all of these important, insidious, and most of all TRUE facts to light! We now know what we must do: for the good of children, authors, and the publishing industry as a whole, destroy public libraries.P.S. It's also good to know that you're not a robot. At first I was suspicious that your post had been written by a malfunctioning android. It's also good to know that you're bringing your full weight as Chair of the Children's Writer's and Illustrators Committee of the Society of Authors UK to bear on this vital issue. This is a fantastic use of your time and energy.

Posted : Aug 26, 2019 04:14

jomccrum@googlemail.com jomccrum@googlemail.com

I disagree with what is stated in this article. I am not aware of any eductional exemptions in the UK (I am writing from the UK) that would allow the creation of such recordings and global broadcast (via YouTube) without clearing rights. See https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/375951/Education_and_Teaching.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3YYsdiuZDAO7u-trchmsG5JEA0ORC1AM628DIQ6-lvyaBV8SdJKPErQrg and https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/375956/Libraries_Archives_and_Museums.pdf for what librarians and teachers can do with copyright material in the UK. The reason there is such a huge amount of material online is because publishers cannot afford to hire large departments of staff to issue take-down notices. Recording a complete text and making it available, however well-meaning the purpose, is an infringement of copyright.

Posted : Apr 29, 2019 11:40

Julie Pawelek

I agree with other commenters here that an article written by an expert in copyright law is necessary. I find certain claims here to be irresponsible and somewhat dangerous. For example, the claim that "The public's behavior shapes the law and how we interpret it" after pointing out that, in essence, "everyone else is doing it." It is very true that most people speed on the highway. However, I have not let that "shape my interpretation of the law," and I think that a judge would find my argument that everyone else's speed has changed the law somehow to be quite laughable. Using fair use guidelines, the criteria are not met. One is using the ENTIRE book, not an excerpt, and it does directly negatively impact the market value as it absolutely CAN (and does, for users who do not have access to a print copy or the published audiobook) serve as a substitute for the book. The author argues that the market value is positively impacted as reading the book online is "promotional." It is not. A booktalk is promotional, not reading an entire book. The author mistakenly refers to the reading of an entire book and posting it online as "highlighting a book," which is simply not the same thing. The author encourages us to make a judgement call, but then walks us through the process with inaccurate information which clouds the judgement that should be made based on copyright law as it exists right now (not how we'd like it to be).

Posted : Apr 28, 2019 12:17

Karen Grasso

I am not at all comforted by the article. I would have been interested to hear an opinion from an expert in copyright law. The notion of fair use has been weakened repeatedly since the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. And, in the age of multi-platform Disney ventures, it is not at all clear that storytimes is not something that a publishing/entertainment company would seek to monetize. The characterization of legal action was also, quite frankly, glib. Even succeeding at litigation is extremely costly in legal costs, staff time, and community good will. And I am not at all convinced that a judge would laugh such a case out of court, nor should she.(NB: In another life, I practiced corporate litigation. I am not expressing a legal opinion but rather observations of the litigation experience.)

Posted : Apr 18, 2019 03:42

Eric Carpenter

I disagree with the conclusion that the "effect on the market for the work—is tiny, if not nonexistent".School districts or building leaders encouraging teachers to search youtube for picturebooks that they do not have in their classroom collection or school library absolutely effects the sales of these books. (It also effects the students educational outcomes but that's a different argument). It also leads to lowering school library budgets!!!!If 400 first grade classrooms in one large school district choose to use search youtube for recording of a picturebook that was placed inside the districts lesson plans instead of using school funds (or honestly personal funds) to purchase copies of said picture book, then the availability of the youtube video is taking money directly out of the pockets of authors, illustrators, and their publishers.

Posted : Apr 17, 2019 12:54

Kathryn King

This post is addressing story time. A story time program encompasses more than reading the book. My library used to film story time and air them on the city cable channel. When doing a story time that would be filmed I couldn't include pre recorded music. Reading aloud from a novel isn't the same as an entire story time. The story time product is much more than just reading a book's text and showing the pictures. The story time presenter is packaging several books along with action rhymes, fingerplays, simple songs etc. to create an overriding experience. No two librarians present a story time the same way. It's a unique performance. All said I'd feel more comfortable if a copyright lawyer said posting recorded storytimes was fair use and not copyright infringement. IYKWIM

Posted : Apr 13, 2019 02:44

Deborah Kaplan

I would like to hear from a copyright lawyer on this one. It's a big risk to make "our own judgement" based on educated interpretation of fair use guidelines in an area where a lengthy precedence had not been established!

Posted : Apr 12, 2019 08:41

Angela Daigle

If storytimes in the digital realm is okay, how about teachers reading chapters of novels when they are working on novel studies. In my mind as long as it is behind a login, i.e Google Classroom or other LMS, it is fine. This would be considered a teaching modification to support students' needs. I also recommend that the teacher remove chapters shortly after they are finished so the entire book is not online. However, in reading your response, is there a need to remove previous chapters? Could they leave them accessible until the novel study is complete.

Posted : Apr 12, 2019 01:53

Lori Liebl

If a group of people read books and record them and then the teacher or other teachers in the same school put it on a school management system that only that teacher’s students have access to, is this illegal? I have been telling people it is illegal as they are taking away profit from audiobooks. Am I wrong? This is confusing to me.

Posted : Apr 12, 2019 02:14



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