Musings on Copyright

So my husband's cousin, who is considering getting a degree in library science, approached me on Facebook. He's working on an assignment that requires him to interview people about their impressions of copyright law. Here are my responses.

NOTE: I am by no means a copyright expert. If I got something wrong, please tell me in the comments. :)

Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do?

My name is Nina McHale, and my title is Web Librarian, Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD). I’m a librarian and the web developer for the Auraria Library, the campus library that serves not only UCD, but the Metropolitan State College of Denver and the Community College of Denver as well. My day-to-day duties including developing and maintaining the library’s web site, as well as conducting research about how students use library websites during their academic careers. I hold an MS in Library Science as well as an MA in English literature.

From your point of view, what is copyright, and what is its purpose?

I guess I would define copyright on the most basic, simplistic level as protection for authors, artists, musicians, directors—anyone producing and distributing creative works. Its purpose is to prevent others from stealing and profiting from their ideas or creations.

Do you see laws, attitudes, and practices reflecting your view of copyright?

For the most part, yes. However, I do feel that we can accomplish more by creating artistic communities that respect author/creators’ rights. We need laws, but peoples’ knee jerk reactions to laws are to break them and/or perceive them as unfair. It’s just human nature to want to do something you’ve just been told not to do. More about this below…

Do you follow copyright law?

Yes, my job requires that I do, and the entire profession of librarianship is heavily invested in complying with and educating others about copyright law. A large part of what I do day-to-day is maintain the library’s website, and the most used content on the site is the electronic resources, like databases and electronic journals. A large part of two of my coworker’s jobs is providing secured online access to these resources, which we’re required to do by the people who sell them to us, specifically to enforce copyright law. Because we have over 250 subscripted resources, and because these are some of our most-used resources, maintaining secure access is a critically important service.

Another common tool in academic libraries is course reserves, which allows an instructor to place assigned readings online so that students can quickly and easily access them. Copyright law requires that anything placed on reserves be password-protected as well, and ironically, we maintain a completely separate system from the one I described above for managing electronic resources for course reserve materials. This is typical of many academic libraries, and like the above example, accounts for a lot of human and physical resources. Professors placing items on reserve must comply with copyright specifics; for example, materials may not stay on reserves indefinitely, and only a certain portion of a book may be scanned and made electronically available to students. We even make a “fair use checklist” available to professors so that they can be sure that they are adhering to copyright, as the onus to do so is on them, not the library or the librarians who manage the course reserves system. The fair use checklist is on our website at:

How are you, personally, affected by copyright law?

Professionally, I publish several articles each year as part of the research component of my job. Some publishers require that authors sign over copyrights, while others offer authors varying degrees of copyright retention. I prefer maintaining copyright over my intellectual property, and in the past year, I have made a concerted effort to publish in journals that support author retention of copyright, including open access journals. Open access journals are published freely online and do not require a personal or library subscription for access to them. In fact, I serve as an editor for our state library association’s journal publication, Colorado Libraries, and we have always allowed authors to retain copyright, and we recently switched to an online open access publishing model that saves the association about $24,000 per year compared to the legacy print model. Making print copies of journals is expensive! See it in action at!

Are you familiar with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998? If so, how do you think we - public, creators, whomever you'd like - have been affected by it?

I feel that current copyright protection methods are hindering progress and adoption of technology. A specific example is electronic books (eBooks); we have had them for over a decade, and the adoption of reading them has been much slower than people predicted. All of the different formats and protocols are serious barriers to use, and for libraries, it makes supporting eBooks very difficult. Which device/format/etc. do we support? Can we afford to support multiple devices/formats? While I agree with the spirit of the DMCA that we should be preventing the circumvention of authentication processes, I think it’s kind of ironic that the processes themselves have been barriers to use/adoption on a large scale.

What is your opinion on P2P technology and its uses?

I feel like it’s being seriously underutilized. Institutions like the RIAA have spent so much time working towards banning P2P exchange of music that they are blind to the opportunities it presents. Many lesser know musicians have gotten breaks by freely sharing their works. Format-less (i.e., no physical format) media transfer seems to be the way we are headed, and anyone not on board will lose out. Whenever I see anything banned or placed behind a barrier, it makes me question what people are afraid of, because often, the thing that’s being banned could be a great success if it were embraced and well-managed. Honestly, holdouts among established musicians like Metallica seem like greedy jerks. One other point I’d like to add: people are always quick to blame new technology for bad behavior. There will always be bad behavior; I think it’s important to place the blame on the bad behavior and NOT to damn the technology outright for creating the problem.

Are you familiar with Copyleft and Creative Commons?

I’m familiar only in passing with Copyleft, but I frequently make use of the Creative Commons as it is integrated into Flickr. I give many presentations at librarian conferences, and I like to include a lot of visual content to keep it interesting and help illustrate my points. I have a lot of pictures that I’ve created, but people get sick of pictures of my dogs and kids, so I borrow a lot from others, attributing appropriately, of course. ☺

If so, what is your opinion of them?

I am all for this type of open sharing with proper levels attribution. I think that for many people, there’s a good will that’s generated in this model. If some nice person has put their music, pictures, etc., up on the web and says, “Here, I made this, you can borrow/use it if you want, and in these ways” you’re more likely to think, “Hey, that was nice of them, I ought to give them credit.” This community-building approach has been successful, I think, because it protects, even promotes, the creators and their work while promoting sharing and openness in a way that copyright law does not.

Do you think that there's anything that a college student should know about copyright in particular?

On a practical level, college students should be well acquainted with proper citation (APA, MLA, etc.) methods to prevent intentional or unintentional plagiarism of others’ works. Serious repercussions, ranging form a failing grade on the assignment, to failing the course, even to expulsion. Citing all of your sources may seem tedious, but adhering to those best practices makes one a better researcher in the long run.

Also, having an understanding of what is legal and what is not when it comes to sharing music, etc., is important to protect oneself against legal action. The media makes college campuses out to be hotbeds of illegal file sharing, especially when it comes to music. Whether you agree with copyright or not—you may think it’s unfair to NOT be able to share in this way—you are still bound by existing laws. And just because the other kids are doing it…you get the picture. ☺ Even a single violation, if you are caught, could permanently taint your academic career and your personal reputation. College administrators don’t like being made to look bad by their students’ activities, either.