Copyright, licensing, and digital rights management are some of the more complex issues any future all-digital research library must face.  Others have tackled this issue in treatises and textbooks.  What follows is an over-simplified discussion of copyright and licensing and how it relates to the feasibility of an all-digital library.

First, copyright.  According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “What does copyright protect? Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”   The actual copyright law is 392 pages, so suffice it to say copyright is the law that protects the creator of a copyrighted work, allowing the creator to profit from their creation.  Cornell University has a chart that outlines which materials fall under copyright protection and which do not:   This chart also serves as an example of Creative Commons Licensing.

Licensing works in conjunction with copyright.  An easy way for a creator to license their creation while maintaining their copyright  is with the use of a Creative Commons license.  Creative Commons, founded in 2001, provides free licenses for copyrighted works.  These licenses authorize use of the copyrighted work within the constraints of the license.  The website provides the details of these licenses:   Using these licenses allows work to be used in the public domain, yet reserves all the legal rights of
the copyright holder.

Digital rights management actually refers to a category of software used to enforce copyright restrictions.  Essentially, digital rights management software uses fundamental electronic safeguards to protect copyrighted works from illegal copying.  This is the software that allows a user to view an ebook from a library catalog, but prevents the user from copy-and-pasting the ebook into a Word document.

Copyright holders will fight to the death – and beyond – for the right to make money off their work, and Congress has obliged by authorizing copyrights to be extended for up to 70 years after the death of the creator. (U.S. Copyright Law, page 121)   This allows copyright owners and their estates to collect money on the copyright, but the extreme restrictions and heavy fines for violation of copyrights has worked against the creators:  their works are not enriching the public domain. If  “Unconstrained access to past works helps determine the richness of future works,” (Bailey, p. 116) then these copyright holders are essentially cutting off their nose to spite their face. If the price to use the original work is too high, nothing will be built from it.

Print and electronic media differ in their copyright uses.  If I buy a paperback book, I can read it and then loan it out to my friends.  I can read it out loud to a group.  I can leave it in a chair at the airport and hope that someone else will pick it up to enjoy.

This is not the case with electronic media.  Once a song, book, or movie is downloaded, only the person who purchased the download may use it. If the library purchases an ebook, how do they legally provide access to that ebook?  This is a critical issue for an all-digital library, because the fines for breaking an electronic copyright are extremely high.  Thus far, the problem has been resolved by paying for licensing through publishers and aggregators, but these continuing fees can also dramatically increase the budget of a library.

In order for an all-digital library to truly exist, research materials will have to be shared in an open access or creative commons environment. Academics have largely adapted to open access publishing for their research:  they expect to receive research for free, although they are willing to buy their own copy for future reference. “It [published academic research] is given away to publishers, (and thereby colleagues and the general public) for peer recognition and as a contribution to the advancement of knowledge for the public good. It is perhaps because academics-as-authors give their works away freely, that they expect to do the same with others’ works as users.”  (Gadd, E., Oppenheim, C., and Probets, S., p. 15).

Given the current climate of filing multi-million dollar lawsuits against college students for sharing music, it may seem that an open access environment is an impossible dream.  However, evidence suggests that the larger product markets are changing.  It is possible to make money from copyrights in conjunction with allowing free access to creative works.

Take Lil’ Wayne, for example.  If you are “of a certain age,” you may not know who (or what?) Lil’ Wayne is, but the current generation of college students are very familiar with his work.  Lil’ Wayne became one of the best-selling musical artists of 2008 by giving away his music for free.  Those of us over the age of 40 remember bootleg cassettes, those much copied (and terrible quality) versions of cassettes created by someone bold enough to sneak a tape recorder into a rock concert.  Mixtapes are the current generation’s bootlegs, right down to the dubious quality.  Lil’ Wayne flooded the underground music market with mixtapes (the musical equivalent of the draft version of a research report).   By flooding the street market with music that people wanted to hear, Lil Wayne created a market for himself.   He learned which songs were requested at clubs and which were not.  When he finally did release his commercial album, it immediately shot up the charts, earning the artist a great deal of money and a Grammy award.

At some level, creating sales out of offering publications for free is simply a numbers game.  National Academies Press offers many of their books online, complete free. In “The Deep Niche,” Michael Jensen describes how one 10-year old title, freely available on the web, received 11,500 visits in 2006. Those visits resulted in $255 in sales from print and digital copies for the small publishing company.

Copyright, licensing, and digital rights management are critical issues for an all-digital library.  In the current environment, it appears that copyright law and digital rights management software combined would not allow such a library to be developed.   However, as open access publishing and licensing concepts seep from the academic and street environments into the business and legal world, the availability of complete open access may simply be a matter of time.

Works Cited:

Bailey, Charles W.  Strong copyright + DRM + Weak Net neutrality = Digital Dystopia? Information Technology and Libraries.  Sept. 2006.  P. 116 – 127.

Christga, R., ‘Tha Carter III’ Takes Lil Wayne Platinum.  All things considered, July 8, 2009. Accessed 4/21/09.
Gadd, E., Oppenheim, C. & Probets, S. RoMEO Studies 3 – How academics expect to use open-access research papers. 2003. Department of Information Science, Loughborough University, Loughborough, LE11 3TU. Accessed 3/29/09.

Hirtle, Peter B. Cornell Copyright Information Center. Accessed 4/21/09.  How Lil Wayne Markets Himself and Why He’s Successful.  Publish date unknown. Accessed 4/21/09.

Jensen, M.  The Deep Niche. The Journal of Electronic Publishing.  Ann Arbor, MI: Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan, University Library. vol. 10, no. 2, Spring 2007. Accessed 4/21/09. [LMS: Fixed broken link]

United States Copyright Law. Accessed 4/20/09.

United States Copyright Office. Frequently Asked Questions: (accessed 4/20/09).