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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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 : Apr 29, 2019 04:46


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


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