MLA Position Statements and FAQs
Applying Fair Use in the Development of Electronic Reserves Systems
For decades libraries have provided access to materials selected by faculty that are required or recommended course readings in a designated area of the library, with materials available to students for a short loan period and perhaps with additional restrictions to ensure that all students have access to the material. Libraries have based these reserve reading room operations on the fair use provisions of the Copyright Law (Section 107).
Within the past decade many libraries have introduced electronic reserves (e-reserves) systems that permit material to be stored in electronic form rather than storing photocopies in filing cabinets. Depending on the particular electronic reserves system, student access may occur in the library or remotely. Students who wish to have a copy of the reading can print it from the e-reserves systems rather than having to take the original volume to a photocopy machine.
The number of electronic resources licensed by libraries has increased significantly over the past decade. The licenses to these resources often include the right to use them in e-reserves systems. In such cases, no permission is required and a fair use analysis is unnecessary.
To ensure, however, that electronic content is effectively incorporated into e-reserve systems, there must be cooperation among library staff acquiring the digital resources and those managing e-reserves operations. They must work together to be certain that the license agreements do not preclude rights to make materials available through e-reserves systems, and that no one pays additional permission fees for users already covered by a license.
As a result of the increase in licensed electronic resources, the percentage of print materials requested and digitized for e-reserves is diminishing. E-reserves practices for these materials vary widely and are influenced by institutional organizational structures, the information and technology infrastructure, manpower, demand, and the copyright law. The factors described below demonstrate a range of considerations when implementing fair use for e-reserves. They also distinguish the approach librarians are entitled to take when determining whether a use is fair from the approach librarians must take when determining whether a use falls within another statutory exemption. For example, Sections 108 (the library reproduction exemption) and 110 (exemption for public displays and performances including the TEACH Act) mandate a "checklist" approach: if a proposed use fails to comply with any condition, prohibition, or exclusion, the exemption does not apply.
Section 107's four-factor fair use test takes a fundamentally different approach: it simply directs that libraries assess overall whether a use is fair by considering the character of the use, the nature of the work to be used, the amount used in proportion to the whole and the impact on the market for the work. There is no fair use checklist, and there is no need to import from other sections of the law the detailed checklists of conditions, prohibitions, and exclusions that characterize their approach. Librarians balance their own interests with the copyright owners' interests. This summary illustrates ways in which libraries can apply fair use criteria in the development of best practices for e-reserves.
First factor: The character of the use.
Libraries implement e-reserves systems in support of nonprofit education.
Second factor: The nature of the work to be used.
Third factor: The amount used.
Fourth factor: The effect of the use on the market for or value of the work.
While there is no guarantee that a practice or combination of practices is fair use, such certainty is not required to safely implement e-reserves. The law builds in tolerance for risk taking. At one end of the continuum are combinations of practices with which individuals and institutions tolerant of some risk will be comfortable. On the other end are combinations of practices with which those who are averse to risk will be more comfortable. Each institution's combination of practices reflects its tolerance for risk against the background of prevailing beliefs about fair use. Understandably, "not knowing" makes many people uncomfortable, so Congress explicitly addressed this aspect of fair use. Section 504(c)(2) of the Copyright Act provides special protection to nonprofit libraries, educational institutions and their employees. When we act in good faith, reasonably believing that our actions are fair use, in the unlikely event we are actually sued over a use, we will not have to pay statutory damages even if a court finds that we were wrong. This demonstrates Congressional acknowledgment of the importance of fair use and the importance of our using it!
The Association of Research Libraries Website provides links to policies that are examples of how research and academic libraries have used the fair use provisions of Section 107 of the Copyright Act as the basis for their electronic reserves policies.
Prepared November 2003 by Georgia Harper, Manager, Intellectual Property Section, University of Texas System Office of General Counsel, and Peggy Hoon, Scholarly Communication Librarian, North Carolina State University.
Endorsed by the Medical Library Association, American
Library Association, American Association
of Law Libraries, Association
of College and Research Libraries, Association
of Research Libraries, and Special Libraries
For more information, contact Mary Langman, firstname.lastname@example.org, 312.419.9094 x27.
Medical Library Association
Last Updated: 2007 July 13