Finding Your Copyright Comfort Zone

Increasing your knowledge and understanding about copyright will help inform your decision-making.

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If you are working or studying at a research university, you are probably regularly making decisions that involve copyright issues.

Copyright issues and concerns thrive and flourish at a research university. Faculty members and graduate students are constantly creating new works for publication, and they have decisions to make about how best to deal with the rights they hold in those works. Researchers and students use and build upon the works of others, often employing the latest tools and technologies in their uses, and copyright requires that they be properly respectful of the interests of the rights-holders in those works. Institutions, through their instructors, reproduce and distribute copyright-protected works as part of their course materials, so they need to have procedures and practices in place to ensure that the institution remains compliant with copyright law in its use of those materials.

So, how can you make all this seem a bit less daunting? What steps can you take to find your copyright comfort zone?

Increasing your knowledge and understanding about copyright will help inform your decision-making, even though the specific questions and decisions you face may be different from those faced by others. It would probably be overkill to try to learn everything about the Copyright Act and all the relevant court cases, but it is important to have a reasonably clear sense of the main principles and how to apply them in the appropriate circumstances.

Finding your own comfort zone may come down to being able to access a few good resources and some helpful perspectives. Included at bottom is a selection of resources to help provide you with a good foundation of copyright knowledge, whether your interest is in general principles or in a very specific circumstance. Familiarizing yourself with these sources of information will help you to quickly find the specific guidance you need when an issue arises.

Copyright law applies to a broad range of content types and a broad range of prospective uses of content. Working with copyright issues often involves interpretations, and making those interpretations can be assisted by coming at the issue from a different perspective. Here are a few useful perspectives that might assist with some of those interpretations.

The Balance of Interests
Copyright law is often perceived to be a balancing of two competing sets of rights: the rights of creators and the rights of users. In this context, what defines "balance" should be thought of as what best serves the broader public interest. The appropriateness of the incentives and rewards that creators receive for the creation of new works, and the reasonableness of the uses to which those works can freely be put by the public, are interpreted in terms of that balance, i.e., what would be in the broader public interest. This is hinted at in s. 29 of the Copyright Act, where the "purposes" for which the fair dealing exception can be applied are all purposes that serve the public interest.

Licensed content
Sometimes what first appears to be a copyright issue turns out to be a licence issue. Much of copyright law, at least in relation to literary works, was originally developed to govern works in printed form. When you buy a printed book, you own the physical object, and copyright is there to protect the rights-holders' interest in the content. However, in the digital world, in many cases you are no longer buying a physical object, but rather you are simply licensing access to the content. In such cases, there is usually a licence agreement covering your access to the content, and although the content itself might be protected by copyright, your access to the content, and how you are permitted to use the content based on that access, is governed by that license agreement. Therefore, as a user, determining the scope and limits of how you might use that content may have more to do with the terms of the licence than with copyright law. This would apply to e-books as well to online content that you access through one of the UA Library licences or that you pay for yourself via a subscription.

Publicly available online content
Just because content is freely available on the internet does not mean that copyright protections do not apply to that content. However, some content that is freely available on the internet has been made available via an open licence, such as a Creative Commons licence. Essentially, an open licence is an announcement to prospective users outlining what uses of that content are permitted (uses which might otherwise be limited by copyright) and what conditions apply to those uses. A good grounding in the various Creative Commons licences is useful not only for users, but also for creators who might choose to make their own content available under such a licence. That way, you can make your content freely available online, while still taking steps to ensure that content is used only in ways you intend (e.g., not for commercial purposes, etc.).

Authors' Interests
For authors who are trying to make their livings through royalties from their published works, anything that enhances sales of and revenues from those works would probably serve their interests. In such cases, what serves the interests of a commercial publisher will probably also serve the interests of those authors. However, things can be a little more complicated when it comes to scholarly publication. There, revenue is not the main concern for the author, although it will likely be the main concern for a commercial publisher. Tenure and promotion, recognition in your field, and being able to draw from your past work on an ongoing basis for research and teaching purposes, will all be important considerations for the scholarly author. It can be useful to keep these interests top of mind when reviewing or negotiating any publishing agreement. For a resource that focuses on book contracts, the Authors Alliance has a useful guide.

Adjusting your perspective to consider the broader context surrounding a copyright issue can often be helpful, and it may assist you to see through some of the fog.

Given the current pace of technological innovation impacting the creation, use and dissemination of copyright-protected works, and given the decisions each of us make daily in using content on our computers and mobile devices, gaining a good grounding in copyright is becoming increasingly important for everyone. You will almost certainly benefit from having a clearer sense of the main principles of copyright and how to apply them in your circumstances.

Finding your copyright comfort zone may be as simple as having access to some reliable resources and adopting some broader perspectives.

Thinking more clearly about copyright issues, both as a content creator and as a content user, will assist you in making decisions about copyright, including the decision of whether and when to seek the assistance of the Copyright Office.

Resource List

  • The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) has recently released a set of seven instructional modules designed to meet the needs of university instructors and staff. The CARL modules are open educational resources.
  • The Opening Up Copyright  instructional modules are a growing series of open educational resources developed at the U of A. These modules are designed for a general audience and are intended to provide more in-depth explorations of issues in Canadian copyright.
  • The U of A Copyright Librarian regularly offers targeted instructional sessions and workshops that promote copyright literacy across campus.
  • The U of A Copyright Office maintains a website with information and resources to serve the campus community, including a number of copyright-related blog posts like this one.
  • For specific issues, the Copyright Office has a help desk to assist members of the campus community with any and all copyright-related questions. Information sessions for groups can also be arranged.

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    About Adrian

  • Adrian has been the Director of the University of Alberta's Copyright Office since April 2015. One role of the Copyright Office is to educate and inform U of A students, faculty and staff on issues related to copyright. Adrian has an LL.B. from the University of Victoria.

    For additional information about copyright at the University of Alberta, or to arrange an information session for your department or faculty, check out the Copyright Office website, or email the help desk.Copyright Office website, or email the help desk.