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Copyright: Information for librarians

An important reminder

You are responsible for making sure that all the materials you use comply with copyright law.

Assume that these materials are protected by copyright unless you can determine with confidence that they are not. 

Copyright and the library exception

Title 17, section 108 of the U.S. Code (sometimes called the library exception) permits certain uses of copyrighted works by libraries and archives without permission from the copyright holders. ‚ÄčThe library exception does not replace fair use, which is codified in Section 107 of the U.S. Code. 

Library exception requirements

To qualify for the library exception, libraries and archives must meet 
the following four requirements: 

1. The collections must be open to the public OR must be available to persons unaffiliated with the institution but doing research in that same specialized field.

2. The copying of copyrighted materials must be done without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage (that means that either the library or archive doesn't charge for the copies or, if they do charge for the copies, they charge on a cost recovery basis, meaning they charge to recoup the cost of actually making the copies).

3. The copying of copyrighted materials cannot be systematic (e.g., with the purpose to replace journal subscriptions).

4. All copies made under this exception must include a notice stating that the materials may be protected under copyright.

What is permitted under the library exception?

Interlibrary loan
Libraries may photocopy and distribute for interlibrary loan one copy of a work (e.g., a journal article or a book chapter) held by a library.

Libraries and archives may make up to three copies to replace damaged, deteriorating, lost, stolen, or works in obsolete formats.* This applies to works in any format and only if  the library or archive has, after a reasonable effort**, determined that an unused replacement copy cannot be obtained at a fair price***. If the copy is in digital format, it should not otherwise be distributed in that format or made available to the public in that format outside the premises of the library or archive.

Libraries and archives may make up to three copies of an unpublished work in any format held by the library or archive for the purpose of preservation.  If the copy is in digital format, it should not otherwise be distributed in that format or made available to the public in that format outside the premises of the library or archive.

Preservation, research, or scholarship
Libraries and archives may reproduce, distribute, display, or perform a published  work that is in its last 20 years of copyright for the purposes of preservation, research, or scholarship but only if the work is not available at a fair price*** or is subject to commercial exploitation

Copying an entire work, or a substantial part of it, for an individual user
Libraries and archives may make one copy of an entire work, or a substantial part of it, for an individual user for private study, scholarship, or non-commercial research, if the library or archive meets the following requirements

NOTE: If your use does not meet these requirements of Section 108, you may still apply fair use or obtain permission from the copyright owner.


* An obsolete format means that the device necessary to display the work is no longer manufactured or reasonably available in the marketplace.

** Reasonable effort is not defined in copyright law and is up to the library professional to determine.

*** Fair price  is not defined in copyright law and is up to the library professional to determine.

Copyright and course reserves

Lending books and other physical items
Lending of books and other physical items held by the library is permitted under the Title 17, Section 109 of the U.S. Code, known as the first sale doctrine (see the box below).

Making copies of articles
Making copies of articles and checking them out to students may be justified by fair use.

"[F]rom a copyright law perspective, there is no distinction between paper reserves and e-reserves. The same fair use guidelines apply to e-reserves; if the particular use of content doesn’t meet the fair use criteria in hard copy form, it is unlikely to be considered fair use in digitized form" (Copyright Clearance Center). 

Copying for an individual user

The U.S. Copyright Law does not clearly define the exact amount of copyrighted material that can be copied  for private study, scholarship, or non-commercial research.

The following  copying practices are generally considered fair use:

  • A single chapter from a book
  • One article from a journal or newspaper
  • A short story, short essay or short poem
  • A chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon, or picture from a book, journal, or newspaper

The first sale doctrine and libraries

Title 17, Section 109 of the U.S. Code, known as the first sale doctrine, permits the owner of a lawfully purchased copyrighted work (e.g., a book or a DVD) to sell, lend, or share this particular copy without having to obtain permission from the copyright holder or pay copyright fees.

The first sale doctrine enables libraries to lend items without legal hurdles but it does not allow libraries to make copies of copyrighted works.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA addresses intellectual property issues in the digital environment. 

Among key topics included in the DMCA are provisions concerning the circumvention of copyright protection systems, fair use in a digital environment, and online service provider (OSP) liability (including details on safe harbors, damages, and "notice and takedown" practices).

Fair use tools for librarians

Other copyright tools