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Copyright for Librarians

Copyright in the Library - Section 108

Section 108 Introduction

A bit of history

Libraries were at the center of an intense controversy for several decades preceding the amendment of the Copyright Act in 1976. By the time Congress began to consider codifying the fair use doctrine, it had been substantially interpreted by the courts for over a century. There had not, however, been a single case construing its application to library copying, probably because everyone thought that library copying was a fair use. Representatives of both libraries and publishers had come to an informal agreement regarding the scope of fair use in this context in 1937 (1). Ultimately the stability provided by that agreement deteriorated as a result of the rapid change in copying technology in the fifties and sixties, and the Williams & Wilkins case (2) in the early seventies.

These events caught both libraries and publishers off guard and neither was satisfied thereafter that their rights were adequately protected solely by reliance upon a vaguely stated fair use doctrine. Over a fifteen year period, several draft proposals were filed as Senate or House Bills, the parties commented upon them, and revisions were offered. Ultimately, Congress enacted both a fair use and a library reproduction provision. Reading the history of Section 108 would suggest that Congress intended to define the scope of fair use in the library context, but the section explicitly states that nothing in it affects the right of fair use under Section 107. This attempted clarification, like most, seems to have raised new, unintended issues.

More than four decades have passed since Congress enacted Section 108; the Register of Copyrights has issued reports addressing whether the balance Congress struck between the rights of copyright owners and libraries has been a fair one; collective licensing has become significantly more important in academic life (i.e. Copyright Clearance Center); lawsuits have been settled that may profoundly affect libraries; publishers have sued libraries to stop activities they consider infringing, and technological change has accelerated. Actually, given the circumstances, it is amazing that we still get along as well as we do.

Following is a discussion of what the library exemption permits. We will first discuss the criteria for qualifying to exercise rights under Section 108, then the archiving provision, the provisions addressing patron copies, the relationship between Section 108 rights and contractually assumed obligations and Section 107 rights, and interlibrary loan. 

Are you the right kind of library?

Not all libraries are qualified to exercise rights under Section 108. Your reproduction and distribution must be without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage as required by subsection (a)(1); collections must be open to the public or to persons unaffiliated with the institution but doing research in a specialized field as required by subsection (a)(2); and your library must scrupulously include with each copy made a notice of copyright as required by subsection (a)(3). Failure to meet these requirements could jeopardize a library's rights under Section 108.

There used to be some controversy about the nature of the copyright notice that was required by subsection (a)(3) to be placed on copies. This confusion was clarified in 1998, when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA") amended Section 108. The law now clearly states that any notice on a work should be included on a copy of the work. Otherwise, copies should contain a legend that notes that a work may be protected by copyright law. 

There is still controversy over whether Section 108's protections apply to for-profit libraries or libraries operating within for-profit corporations. The House Report specifically indicates that commercial advantage refers to "the immediate commercial motivation behind the reproduction and distribution itself, rather than to the ultimate profit-making motivation behind the enterprise in which the library is located" (3). Thus, it would appear that the research libraries in our country's corporations were intended to be covered. This was not, however, the understanding of the district court that heard the Texaco case; Judge Leval determined that Section 108 would not apply to Texaco's library because its research was done for profit (4). 


1 The so-called "Gentlemen's Agreement," 2 J. of Doc. Reproduction 31 (1939).

2 Williams & Wilkins v. United States, 487 F.2d 1345 (Ct. Cl. 1973), affirmed by an equally divided Court, 420 U.S. 376 (1975); the publishers "won" when the case was first tried before a Commissioner at the Court of Claims in 1972, understandably alarming the libraries. Then, the libraries "won" when the case was appealed to the full Court of Claims in 1973, likewise alarming the publishers. Ultimately, the Supreme Court affirmed the appelate decision by an equally divided court.

3 H.R. Rep. No 1476, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. at 75 (1976).

4 American Geophysical Union v. Texaco, Inc., 802 F.Supp. 1 at 27-28, note 1 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). Note that the discussion of Section 108 issues in Texaco is probably dicta in that the court was limited by stipulation of the parties to a consideration of fair use under Section 107. Nonetheless, the court did discuss Section 108 and made conclusions that seem entirely incorrect and quite troubling as a result.

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