Copyright Law Best Practices (or, “What can I do/not do with library property?”

Disclaimer: this is not legal advice, just legal information gleaned from my learning experience. This post originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of the WLA eNewsletter, Connect.

After having an interaction with a patron last week who wanted to check out some CDs to make a mixed-tape of Willie Nelson songs as a present for his uncle, I wanted to learn more about copyright law: Was this use proper, since it was for a present? Was it categorically copyright infringement? Or is the area too gray? The item wasn’t going to be sold and only some tracks were being used. Is there a specific, definable threshold? Since I’m still an MLIS student, I’m trying to learn how to navigate what is and is not “fair use.”

Wanting to learn more, and quickly, I ventured on over to Infopeople (which I wrote about in the 2011 July issue of the WLA eNewsletter, “Current”) to see what I could find. Lo and behold, a one-hour archived Webinar on the newest copyright tools as of January, 2010 was available. The following explains copyright law best practices…

→ I won’t go into eBooks and digital images, since that’s still uncharted and emerging, and also since most libraries are still only dealing with books, DVDs, and music and audiobook CDs.

What I learned about the “Okay to use?” workflow:

  1. Is it in the Public Domain?
  2. If no: Is there an exception (library exceptions)?
  3. If no: is it in the “gray area” (fair use)?
  4. If no: get permission before copying.

Fair Use Flow Chart

Public Domain

Best place to go to see the latest parameters reflecting the newest laws: (even includes an international section!) just enter the status term and get a quick visual response to see if the item is protected by copyright. (Similar to, but the site kept freezing my machine)

Copyright renewals: [database of booksoriginally registered between 1923-1963] pre-1923 = public domain; post 1963 = renewal not needed because renewals are automatic; unlike the site, this site did not freeze my computer screen]

Library Exceptions

Section 108 of US Copyright Code allows libraries and archives, under certain conditions, to make reproductions of copyrighted materials without permission. To see if a particular reproduction is covered by the “108 Exception,” visit

So if it’s not in the Public Domain, and it’s not an Exception, is it Fair Use property?

Fair Use evaluator:

This Web site provides two sections:

  • Learn about fair use
  • Make a fair use evaluation (tool does not provide legal advice!). You can make a time-stamped PDF of your interaction – how cool is that? (PDF shows good-faith assessment for any future questioning of your copying of the item; however, it gives only a general indicator of fairness.)

Four factors of Fair Use: The parenthetical question following each factor are by no means complete, but added to just give the essence of that specific factor.

  1. Purpose: Ex: What is the purpose? Is it socially beneficial?
  2. Nature: Is work primarily of a factual nature? Does work contain limited new knowledge?
  3. Amount: Are only limited and reasonable portions being used? Is the portion being used the “heart” of the work?
  4. Effect: What is the effect of using copied material on the potential market/value of copyrighted work?

In the end, I realized that it’s not a cut-and-dried matter, and that this issue probably falls into a very gray area. This scenario caused quite a heated debate on our student discussion board (some very adamant it’s copyright violation, others that it’s too far within the gray area to decide easily). What do you think?

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