5 things public libraries should know about the latest copyright laws


At their core, librarians are custodians of content. They gather publications and other information-rich formats, keep a trusted archive of historical records, and help patrons navigate the vast collection of resources within their library. But this isn’t always an easy task.  

With the latest copyright laws designed to address the ongoing shift to digital, finding the sweet spot between protecting creators and facilitating access to information and resources is harder than ever. As a result, today’s librarians are having to determine how they offer digital content to their patrons, find the right tools to do so, and also make sure that the avenues they choose adhere to their regional copyright laws — which aren’t always crystal clear. As if that weren’t enough, libraries are among the only institutions actively advocating for copyrighted materials to be easily accessible to all individuals.  

To help library leaders grapple with this unique challenge, we’re sharing a list of considerations to keep in mind on how to avoid breaking copyright law. 

See also: 

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1. Digital content has changed the game   

Even before the internet was a thing, copyright law was at the forefront of many heated debates on the rights of consumers vs. the rights of the creator. Finding a balance between the two meant being able to democratize access to content while still ensuring that writers, artists and other content producers were compensated for their work. This is still true today — but the context is vastly different.  

With the rise of the internet and digital platforms, easy access to content has made it simple to steal and appropriate content, so much so that some people don’t even realize they’re doing it. This has pushed regulatory bodies to rethink how they approach online copyright law (the EU launched new copyright rules in May 2021) so that they can better protect creators publishing their work online.  

How libraries deal with copyright issues in the digital age is still a contested topic. While there are much clearer boundaries around what libraries and their users can and can’t do with digital materials, strict copyright limitations threaten libraries’ roles as custodians and sharers of cultural, scientific and heritage knowledge. 

2. Copyright laws and licensing bodies vary across countries and regions 

While there are a handful of international treaties on copyright law — the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty is one of them — there is no global set of rules when it comes to protecting content. Instead, each country or region has their own licensing body that oversees all titles within their jurisdiction. For instance, in Canada, AccessCopyright is the non-profit licensing organization that represents most writers and publishers.  

The rules and regulations will often vary from one place to the next, and they sometimes include stipulations for libraries. In the US, for example, libraries can fall under the “fair use trade” category, which means that they can make copies of certain items under certain circumstances. For libraries that want to host and share publications from various regions in the world, it can be almost impossible to keep track of all the rules.


3. Keeping up to date on copyright laws is a lot of work   

To get a full grasp of the copyright laws in their country or region, librarians often have to study the legislation and understand it within the context of how they operate. Once they’ve done that, they then need to apply this knowledge across their day-to-day activities including: 

  • Photocopying and scanning articles 
  • Copying software or offering it for multiple users 
  • Downloading or incorporating music into presentations and course management systems 
  • Negotiating permissions with others for the use of their content 
  • Interpreting digital content licenses with third parties 
  • Identifying when exceptions set out in the copyright law apply 
  • Determining and researching when a work is in the public domain 
  • Teaching others about complying with copyright law 
  • Answering a variety of copyright questions 

In short, libraries need to have at least one go-to copyright person that helps keep the institution (and its patrons) compliant — but not all libraries can afford to have that skill set in their team. 

4. Keeping digital archives is a challenge

For generations, libraries have been responsible for archiving content for historical reference, but there are features of copyright laws that put this tradition at risk. Today, before copying articles to keep in an archive, libraries need to confirm with the corresponding licensing authorities whether they require permits from the copyright holder. In the US, for example, the Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) helps librarians understand their rights.  

Libraries should also be able to track whether patrons are saving articles on their devices, as that could constitute copyright infringement.  

5. There are budgetary constraints to keep in mind

More often than not, libraries pay more for copyrighted works than individuals do — particularly when it comes to publication subscriptions and periodicals — because of the potential for multiple uses of the same piece of content. Because of this, libraries will often have to rely on their consortium or the broader institution they operate under to negotiate on their behalf. This can mean missing out on opportunities to curate the selection of newspapers and magazines to the specific needs of their community.  

It’s time to change the model 

As things change, our instinct is often to use the old way of doing things, just within a new context. While that might feel like a comfortable approach, it can ultimately add unwanted complexities in both the short and long term. To some extent, that’s how libraries are responding to the latest copyright laws — but there’s an alternative.  

The PressReader platform helps libraries democratize access to thousands of newspapers and magazines from all over the world, all while reducing the possibility for copyright infringement by its customers by implementing the following measures:  

  • As a content distributor, PressReader doesn’t currently sell through copyright or licensing rights. That means that we provide access to the content only, not the rights to the content itself.  
  • The PressReader app has a mechanism that prevents screenshots of any content on the platform. If a user attempts to capture an image, for instance, they get a notice that they are breaking our terms and conditions and any distribution is prohibited. 
  • PressReader deploys various types of visible and invisible watermarks on its content to prevent and track illegal redistribution of the content and possible copyright infringement. 

PressReader is also working on building partnerships with licensing bodies with the ultimate goal of creating new revenue channels for content producers all while streamlining copyright and licensing management for our customers. In the future, this could mean that a library could manage their entire publication relationships through a PressReader engagement, saving them both time and money, all while curating a collection that makes the most sense for their patrons.  

Because of all these features, libraries that use PressReader as a digital newsstand can benefit from and rely on our transparency and expertise in the area of copyright law. The added bonus? Our pricing model is set up to ensure that publishers are paid fairly, and that puts our platform in the best position to serve both creators and the general public at the same time.  

Learn more about how the PressReader digital newsstand supports libraries as they navigate the complex digital copyright landscape. 


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