Legal Use of Digital Content – Making it Clear and Simple

November 2009

By Lesley Ellen Harris

Is your organization still receiving daily deliveries of piles of newspapers and specialized journals for management and staff? Probably not. The Internet is now the preferred method of delivery and distribution of such content. But the legal use of digital content does raise a number of questions for the librarian or resource manager which Lesley Ellen Harris, a lawyer, author and educator specializing in copyright and licensing, will answer in this article. Ms. Harris publishes The Copyright & New Media Law Newsletter and maintains a blog with copyright answers ( Her book, Licensing Digital Content: A Practical Guide for Librarians, Second Edition, is available from ALA Editions.

Suppose your organization has just signed a license agreement to access an electronic database or periodical. You know that signing a license is different from purchasing a hard copy of the same content for shelf access. Use of the content is subject to certain terms and conditions set out in the license agreement. But what are your obligations to inform others – the end users of the database or periodical – about those terms and conditions?

Are you now the “copyright police,” required to monitor each search, access, download or print-out from the database or periodical? Must you educate users about the terms and conditions of use and inform them that they are responsible for ensuring they use any licensed content legally? Do you have any obligations at all? Your first source for answers is in the license itself.

Read the license

It is important to look for clauses in the license setting out licensee obligations. For example, there may be a clause stating that employees, patrons, the public and other authorized users should be notified of the terms and conditions in the license. But if so, how? Should users be required to read a copy of the license prior to accessing the database? A summary of the terms and conditions, written in straightforward language, is likely to be more helpful – perhaps including specific examples of what is permitted under the license.

The summary should include a contact name or e-mail address for further questions. And many licensing questions can be expected, including:

  • Can I send a PDF copy of an article to a patron or client by email?
  • Can I post an image from the licensed database on our library’s (or organization’s) intranet or website?
  • Can I print a copy of an article I access?
  • Can I forward a copy of an article to another librarian in our library, or to a fellow employee currently posted in a different country?

And, if the answer to any of those questions is no, the inevitable follow-up question will be: Why not? Or, in some cases, the “but-I-could-with-the-print-version” reply. For instance, why can’t I forward all the articles from a particular periodical to all the librarians in our library – isn’t that the same as circulating the print periodical?

Photo: iStockphotos

Educational initiatives

Whatever the approach, ensuring the legal use of licensed electronic content is not easy and must be dealt with on various levels. The first step may be to provide users with the basics about copyright law and to explain that a license agreement gives permission to use content, not ownership of the content. The next step may be discussing how permissions work, and how license agreements set out specific terms and conditions of use.

Libraries or organizations with several licensed databases and periodicals may consider holding regular in-house educational seminars on using licensed content, how a contract is adhered to and the terms and conditions often found in digital license agreements. Seminar participants typically gain a thorough understanding of the legalities of using electronic content as well as of some of the specific limitations under particular licenses. For those not able to teach such seminars, many organizations and professional associations offer online courses, and this is also a popular topic at library conferences.

Copyright warnings

Another way to educate users about the legal use of licensed content is to include copyright information on each reproduced article or item in the database (e.g., content owner’s name and email address). The content owner may already have opted to place that information on each item, so that it displays automatically.

Wherever and whenever access to licensed content is made available, patrons, researchers and other end users should be explicitly made aware of copyright law and license agreements. For example, a copyright notice should be posted near computer terminals from which databases or periodicals may be accessed. In the case of remote access, a copyright notice should appear prior to a user’s being granted access to content. The wording of such a notice may be agreed upon with the content owner.

The library should also make information on copyright law and license agreements easily accessible to users, via its own website, intranet, as a listing of links to other websites and/or on a shelf in the library. Using some form of digital rights management (DRM ) may also help to ensure appropriate use of licensed content, including using a password-protected site and encryption. Some find this a good method while others find DRM burdensome, in that it can make accessing licensed content more difficult.

Having a focal point can also be useful. Where the license is unclear, or the activity involved not specifically addressed in the license, the end user would then have someone to contact – a librarian or a person experienced in negotiating and interpreting license agreements – who can provide a quick, practical answer. Generally, a legal opinion is not necessary, and consulting a lawyer for each question may be time-consuming and expensive. It is well worth having a librarian or other qualified person become a part- or full-time copyright librarian who can manage copyright and licensing issues for the resource center or organization.

Increasing the number of legal users

Ensuring that licensed content is used legally is a multifaceted task. It involves understanding the license, explaining the terms clearly and getting support from senior management – both in terms of budget and time – for the training of end users. Training is crucial in instilling greater confidence among end users in using licensed content and perhaps even increasing its use, thereby contributing to overall growth in the legal use of licensed content.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.