or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Author John Green, Copyright Violator

   February 25th, 2015 Brian Herzog

I meant to post this last week, but hopefully it's still new to some people - it's definitely still interesting to me.

The Copyfight blog highlighted a story on how author John Green came to the realization that a quote that had been widely attributed to him - which he didn't remember writing but accepted because the entire internet said it was his - wasn't actually his. He explains:

My takeaways from this are:

  • Not fact-checking is one thing. But even if you did fact-check and find every source available attributes something to the same source, you can still be wrong. The internet certainly allows for the wild propagation of sources, but it's nice to know that there still is an objective truth that lies beyond the internet zeitgeist.
  • Fact-checking has become exceeding difficult when the author of a novel has to illegally download a copy of his own book to search it. Maybe this is an indication that there is a problem with our copyright system.
  • John Green is a really nice guy.

Also, if you don't follow the CrashCourse YouTube channel, keep an eye out for their upcoming Intellectual Property episode (here's the preview):

Tags: , , , , , ,

Reference Question of the Week – 9/16/12

   September 22nd, 2012 Brian Herzog

All Is Vanity, by C. Allan GilbertThis question... well, this question is one of those that I dread. All too easy to answer, but the easy answer comes with a moral dilemma for librarians.

One afternoon my director came out to the Reference Desk to talk to me about something. While she was out there, a patron walked up and with this question:

Patron: There's a famous painting by an artist named C. A. Gilbert - it's of a women looking in a mirror, but it's an optical illusion that looks like a skull. Do you have a book with it in it?
Me: I don't know, but let's check.
Patron: It's a great painting - I want to photocopy it so I can put it on a t-shirt.

Okay, that last comment is what caused the warning bells to go off. I don't like giving patrons the "COPYRIGHT! DON'T STEAL!" talk, but I respect intellectual property enough to always work it in somehow. Each patron, and each potential copyright violation, is different, so I usual wait and try to either casually mention it in the course of the search, or make a very blatant parting statement after we find whatever we're looking for. But it's something no one ever wants to hear, most people don't care about, and makes me feel like a dork and a prude for pointing out. But I am a librarian, and I wear my dorkishness and prudishness on my sleeve.

My director, for her part, knew exactly what I was thinking (and dreading) copyright-wise, so she just kind of laughed and walked away, leaving me to it.

In this case, the patron was really excited about how neat this painting was, so we got right into the search. The first thing I did was search for "c a gilbert woman skull" online, to make sure we got the right painting and the artist's full name.

The first result was a Wikipedia entry for Charles Allan Gilbert, and when we clicked into it, the painting he was looking for was right at the top of the page. Great. Also great is that Wikipedia provided the name of the painting, All is Vanity.

Unfortunately, searches in our catalog for his name or the name of the painting were unsuccessful. There's always the option of going to our general books of American artwork and flipping through the tables of contents and indexes looking for these entries, but I could tell this patron wouldn't be happy with that.

So, I showed him how you could click the image on Wikipedia to see a larger version, and also how to use Google to search for high-resolution images (there weren't a lot of high-res versions, but tons of low-res images on all sorts of websites). That way, I said, he could just print from the computer right onto iron-on paper, to make his t-shirt.

He readily agreed, and it seemed like the time was right for The Copyright Talk (coincidentally, my director happened to choose just this moment to make her way back over to the desk).

Me: Oh and remember, not everything on the internet is always free to use. Some things are still under copyright, and you usually need to get permission before you use them or make things out of them.

I thought that was kind of smooth. But the patron turn to me straight on and just looked at me.

Patron (kind of offended): That painting is a hundred years old and the artist is probably dead, so it's not copyrighted any more. Besides, I'm not going to sell t-shirts, I'm just making one for myself.

I didn't want this to turn confrontational, accusatory, or preachy, but I wanted to persevere too (especially with my boss within earshot), so I just wrapped it up with,

Me: I think copyright can extend beyond the artist's life, depending on how the estate handles it. And even making a shirt for yourself might be a violation, because making one means you're not buying an officially-licensed one, which could impact their revenue. In this case you're probably all right because there were so many other copies of this painting on all sorts of websites, but it's a good thing to check into if you really want to be safe.

The patron agreed, but I think it was more to shut me up than because he was going to look into copyright.

Regardless, he thanked me, especially for showing how to find the high resolution image online, because that was something he hadn't tried. This was actually a couple weeks ago, and I haven't seen the patron around town wearing a new t-shirt, so hopefully he did the right thing.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Copyright Warning Bookmark

   June 17th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Copying a DVDWe had sort of an odd situation in my library a little while ago - the story is a bit long, so please bear with me:

As circ staff were checking returned items back in, they found a DVD case with no disc in it (not unusual). They called and left a message for the patron to check their DVD player and please return the missing disc.

The patron called back after we were closed, left a message that she returned the wrong case, and asked we call her at work the next day.

What? Wrong case?

When our Head of Circulation called her the next day, the work number the patron gave was for a video reproduction company(!). When she finally spoke with the patron, the patron told her that she had the disc and the library's case, and the one she returned (accidentally) was a color photocopy she'd made of the DVD jacket (which it was, and confirmed in that the barcode and other stickers were no longer stickers).

This set off debate amongst the department heads in my library. It seems, clearly, that this patron worked at a video reproduction company that was checking out DVDs from the library and not just ripping the DVDs, but creating reproductions of the cases too - to who knows what end. Even if they're not mass reproducing them for sale, this activity is still illegal.

But, we have no actual proof of DVD copying, just speculation (maybe she just liked the DVD jacket?), and it'd be a major step to accuse a patron of this or to notify the police (or FBI?). So after some debate, we decided the library's role is to:

  • make information and materials available to the public, and
  • make the public aware of the copyright limitations of library materials

Our logic is that we can't police patrons and force them to follow intellectual property laws, but it is our responsibility to make sure they are informed of those laws.

To do that, we wanted to make a small handout or bookmark that informed patrons of copyright restrictions, but I wasn't sure exactly where to begin. I had bookmarked a Columbus Dispatch article entitled "Copying library CD? You just broke the law" awhile ago because of something I'd heard of going on at another library* and that article mentioned Carrie Russell, a copyright specialist for the American Library Association.

I found her ALA contact information, sent her an email explaining our situation and asking if she had concise wording we could use for a short copyright handout. Her response was hands-down the quickest (next day!) and most helpful reply I've ever gotten from someone at the ALA:


I usually suggest that the library suspend the patron's borrowing privileges when it is clear they are infringing.

You can use language from the CFR to craft a letter. This is the language that libraries should use when lending software, but you can use it for this situation too.

Notice: Warning of Copyright Restrictions The copyright law of the United States (title 17, United States Code) governs the reproduction, distribution, adaptation, public performance, and public display of copyrighted material. Under certain conditions specified in law, nonprofit libraries are authorized to lend, lease, or rent copies of computer programs to patrons on a nonprofit basis and for nonprofit purposes. Any person who makes an unauthorized copy or adaptation of the computer program, or redistributes the loan copy, or publicly performs or displays the computer program, except as permitted by title 17 of the United States Code, may be liable for copyright infringement. This institution reserves the right to refuse to fulfill a loan request if, in its judgment, fulfillment of the request would lead to violation of the copyright law. (37 C.F.R. 201.24)

Hope this helps.

Some of us liked the idea of suspending the patron's borrowing privileges (at least temporarily), but we decided against that as a first step. From the wording Carrie sent, I created the following copyright notice brochure (changing references to "computer programs" to be inclusive of all library material). These bookmarks are kept at the Circ Desk and given to those patrons we suspect need the information most.

Feel free to edit and use this for your own library, and let me know if you can recommend any improvements. I was going for "fewer words = more likely to be read" but didn't quite get there.


*Another long story, for another time. In the meantime, here's a Video Pirates clip that's worth watching.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,