Copyright: Digitisation

Λογοκριμένη Αλληλογραφία: Letter Opened by Censor, from Europeana CC-BY-NC_3.0

Λογοκριμένη Αλληλογραφία: Letter Opened by Censor, from Europeana CC-BY-NC_3.0

Let’s talk about arguably the biggest copyright question that libraries throughout the world are asking: “Can I digitise this?”

There are so many reasons why libraries are digitising their collections that it is hard to give even an overview. Here are a few reasons why libraries might digitise materials:

  • It is a means of preservation.
  • It is how patrons often prefer their materials.
  • It is the best way for a single library to serve a large area.
  • It allows libraries to share their collections beyond the borders of the areas they serve.
  • It allows libraries to have large collections when they have small physical spaces.
  • It allows libraries to free up their physical spaces for uses other than housing stacks.

Copyright is something that libraries need to consider when digitising materials.

Copyright is actually a bundle of rights that belongs to the creators of materials. As soon as copyright kicks in for a work, the creator has the exclusive right to decide when that work can be copied and shared. Since digitisation involves making a copy and sometimes sharing it, we have to consider copyright before we do it. We either need an exception in our country’s copyright laws for that kind of use, or we need permission from the copyright owner.

Some countries have more latitude for digitising works than others.

In the United States, Google Books and HathiTrust have a huge book digitisation program that was the subject of a high-profile copyright infringement lawsuit. A group of authors and copyright holders argued that Google Books and HathiTrust had no right to make digital copies of their books.

Google Books and HathiTrust ultimately won because the judge extended the concept of fair use (an exception to copyright in American copyright law) to apply to the digitisation of books in this case. The digitised books can’t be made publicly available, but they can be digitised for limited uses.

In many other countries, however, the exceptions to copyright for digitisation are very narrow, and many conditions must be met before a decision to digitise can be made.

Here are some questions to think about and to talk to your partner about:

  • Does your library regularly digitise materials? Why?
  • What kinds of factors do you consider when deciding to digitise? Is copyright one of them?
  • If copyright is one of the factors, how do you deal with it? Is a copyright a serious roadblock or just a small obstacle?

Alison Makins, ILN’s Legal and Risk Consultant

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2015B and tagged , , , .


  1. Thanks Alison Makins for this observation but many times there is conflict of interest when certain issues in this area of copyrights are presented. We strive for open access then after attach several restrictions. Where are the benefits of the owners of intellectual property?

    • Emmy, that’s a great question, and it’s quite complex. I’ll try to do it justice! I think proponents of digitisation, including many rightsholders, would argue that digitisation promotes the creators’ works and gets their names into the public space. Many creators have become more popular after some of their works have been digitised, and it in turn made them more successful as creators. Also, many works that are digitised would otherwise be locked away and unable for users to read and enjoy. Digitising allows stories to be told to communities that would otherwise not have access to the content. But, you’re right. The decision to digitise is one of the exclusive rights of the creator, and if a creator does not want his or her work to be digitised, then he or she should be able to stop that process. Because of that fact, I think there is a strong argument that the Google Books cases in the US were wrongly decided–those books were digitised without consent. The balance between a creator’s rights and a user’s rights is a hard one to find, and I don’t always think that judges decide it correctly.

  2. Good subject! Digitization can’t be done in isolation to Copyright laws. Thanks to the Copyright Society of Malawi.I attended one workshop by this society in 2010 and it really opened my eyes on many copyright issues-local and International.I would therefore ask for such workshops regularly.

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