Copyright and Risk

It is hard to believe that it has been almost a month since Digital Directions. (I guess being involved in two NEH grant applications and some strategic planning activities can just consume time otherwise spent thinking about archives and digital libraries). My two biggest takeaways from DD2012 were about copyright and delivery. I’ve heard Peter Hirtle give his copyright talk a number of times over the years and was struck this time by how the landscape around copyright and digital libraries has shifted over the years, much to the benefit of open access to information.

Peter summed up the shift in a couple of bullet points:

  • Don’t just ask “Is it legal”?
  • Ask “Who is going to be angry if I do this? Who will benefit?”
  • Look for ways to minimize potential harm while maximizing access and use.

Citing  the recently published ARL Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries, Principle 4 that supports the idea of fair use in archival collections that are comprehensively digitized, Peter emphasized the idea of risk assessment in addition to, and perhaps before, legal precedent in determining whether or not to provide digital access to primary source materials.

And finally, he said that it was important to be honest and open about your own decisions, to inform users about all you know about the rights that relate to your content so that they can be responsible as well.

This seems to me to bring us back to the common sense approach that was prevalent in the pre-digital but post-photocopier age, when we informed people of the potential of copyright issues relating to the material we were making available but trusted the users to be responsible researchers.

After some years of worrying that the specter of copyright would choke off most of the innovation in delivering digitized Special Collections, I see these developments as a positive step forward.

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