Things every librarian should learning about: Copyright edition

Remember all the way back to 2020. I know, I know you don’t want to. It’s fine, I promise, we’re only going back to November when I wrote about how every academic librarian-in-training should learn about Open Educational Resources (OERs). Well, I’m back to talk more in the realm of things that I think every librarian should make a point of learning about and, this time, I specifically want to help you understand why and how you should learn about copyright. The only time HLS has had an in depth piece on copyright was way back in 2013. So, I thought it was time for another one because things have changed in the copyright landscape since then!

Firstly, I do recommend you go back and read that 2013 post by Chealsye Bowley as she wrote a really good primer on the bare basics of copyright. However, I do want to start this piece off with some very introductory terminology definitions.

Intellectual Property

This is the umbrella term for the branch of law concerned with creations of the mind in the numerous forms that they take. There are many sub-branches of intellectual property law, with the three that most often come up in LIS being copyright, trademarks, and patents.


The area of intellectual property rights that protects creative works including books, poetry, plays, stories, software, motion pictures, songs, sound recordings, paintings, drawings, computer programs, sculptures, photographs, translations, compilations, tables and choreography. What exactly does it protect? The ability to copy, reproduce, perform and distribute a work, among other things. In many countries, neighboring rights such as publicity rights, public performance rights, and moral rights are bundled up with copyright law.

Fair Dealing

An exception under copyright laws in countries like Canada and the UK. This exception allows for specific uses in specific circumstances.

Fair Use

An exception under copyright laws in the United States. This exception allows for similar uses as fair dealing, but there are differences between the two.

Freely Available

Items that are freely available on the Internet are not free of copyright protection unless a statement is made to directly indicate that is the case via license terms or a public domain declaration. No copyright statement does not mean something is not protected, as copyright attaches to a work at the moment of creation whether a copyright statement or symbol is present or not. If you do not see a statement indicating otherwise, then assume the work is all rights reserved by the creator.

Public Domain

People often assume that anything “freely available” is part of the public domain, and that’s just not how the public domain works. Works enter into the public domain for one of only a handful of reasons: either they were never copyrightable to begin with, their protection lapsed (figuring this out takes time and know how), or the copyright holder has explicitly dedicated a work to the public domain. When a work is in the public domain, new creators can use the work for anything they wish without permission or compensation.

National Treatment

A very important concept to understand. National treatment is the principle that the copyright laws that apply to a use are explicitly tied to the country where the use is taking place and not the country where the item was originally created. For example, if I want to create a parody of an American work in Canada, I am governed by Fair Dealing; whereas if I were creating the same parody in the United States, I would be governed by Fair Use.


Trademarks are corporate tools and they are the combination of letters, words, sounds, or designs that distinguish one company from another in the marketplace. Trademarks are the reason that, even though we all call facial tissues Kleenex, only the company that owns the Kleenex brand can actually use that name for the product.


Patents protect technology, inventions, and products. I’ll use vaccines as an example, as the person who discovered the polio vaccine didn’t take out a patent. So, this meant that any company who could make the vaccine was able to. This allowed for the vaccine to be more widely available at a much lower cost. Seatbelts are another example of an innovation that was not patented to the benefit of society as a whole. Patents keep other people and companies from profiting off of your protected work for a certain period of time.


If you’ve ever used an electronic resource at a library such as an ebook or a journal article, then congratulations you’re familiar with copyright licenses! Or, at least with using material that has been licensed. A license is granted by a copyright holder and comes with specific rules around what the licensee can and can’t do with the work being licensed to them. Proprietary subscription licenses from publishers are the most common, but not the only, form of copyright license that you will run into. Ever play a video game and have to fill out an EULA (or end-user license agreement)? This is the same thing as that was you becoming a licensee on a copyrighted work. The same goes for the terms of use that we never read as thoroughly as we should on websites, as, if you look closely, you’ll find a section on copyright in there.

Open Access

This is the idea that essentially, as much information as possible should be freely and openly available. This is the principle that governs the open education, open data, open politics, and open science movements. Open access and open advocates want to improve information access for people all around the globe. I created a libguide for my publishing class in Fall 2020 that will get you started on learning more about open access.

Open Licenses

These function similarly to non-open copyright licenses; except they have the express purpose of trying to give the end user of a work more power and freedom than they would otherwise have.

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons licenses are the most widely used and widely known about open licenses; and they’re the backbone of the OER movement. This website is governed by one. Over the summer, I had to create a short video that breaks down what these licenses do and how they work.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I just threw a lot of information at you and it all sounds really complicated. But, fear not, because there are several different paths you can take to learn about copyright. Why should you, though? Because copyright will come into play in many aspects of librarianship whether you go into public, academic, special or corporate libraries. Copyright will even come into play in the world of archives and museums. Having an understanding of even the basics of copyright will given you more flexibility in the areas of librarianship that you can explore. But, even if you’re not working directly with copyright, at some point a user may still ask you a question or have an issue impacted by copyright, and you should be armed to help them. So, now, let’s look at the paths to learning about copyright.

Paid Pathways

I’m starting with these because, sadly, they outnumber the free methods that I know about. Many of these are predominantly American-focused, but I will note anything that explicitly covers non-American copyright.

Free Pathways

If you know of any resources that I’ve missed, feel free to leave them in the comments or send me the links on Twitter @rendages and I will update this resource list!

In addition to being a Contributing Writer here at Hack Library School, Lauren (she/her) is currently working towards her MLIS part-time, online, through the University of Alberta, she expects to graduate in Spring 2022. She holds an honours BA in English/Religion & Culture and a BEd, both from Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interests are copyright, open education; accessibility; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS. Lauren is the Copyright and Reserves Supervisor at Wilfrid Laurier University, serving on the Library’s Accessibility Committee, and the Student Advisory Council. She also co-hosts a bi-weekly Twitter chat on library issues and trends (#lisprochat) and is a research assistant on the Opening Up Copyright project. Find her: @rendages, @lisprochat |

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