Administrative Read Reference

Public Libraries and the Law

Copyright Laws

In the United States, copyright is governed exclusively by federal law. An author has a copyright interest in any writing, musical composition, etc., as soon as he or she produces it. That is, it does not have to be published or have a notice of copyright attached to it for a copyright to exist.

The author or person to whom the author has transferred the copyright normally has exclusive rights to reproduce the work. However, there are some important exceptions to this exclusive right. Another person may reproduce part or all of the work as long as his or her use is a "fair use." The definition of "fair use" is rather vague, but generally a person making a copy for his or her own personal use is considered to be making a fair use.

One long section of the copyright law specifies in detail how fair use is defined for libraries. Generally a library can reproduce the entire text of a published book for its own collections, as long as new copies of that book are not available for sale at a "fair price". It can also reproduce the entire work for a library patron, as long as it determines that copies are not otherwise available at a fair price and that the patron will use the work for his personal study or scholarship. The library must give notice to the patron of the fact that the work is subject to copyright laws.

A library may also make available to its patrons, for their personal use, a photocopier for duplicating articles or books, as long as the photocopier has a warning that copies may be subject to the copyright law, known as the "Display Warning of Copyright." Reproductions are not to be used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research.

The copyright laws contain several other provisions concerning libraries. Those concerned about particular issues should seek the advice of an attorney.