Changing role of libraries

World Book and Copyright Day was celebrated worldwide on April 23. Various activities were held worldwide to celebrate this day, including in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Algeria, Dublin, Sweden and many other countries. This year, Unesco also marked the 80th anniversary of the Index Translationum with a debate which took place at its headquarters.

The traditional role of public libraries… will continue but this alone will not be enough for them to survive
- Robert Mizzi

Many people traditionally refer to this day as a reminder of the importance of reading and literacy. Some refer specifically to the importance of encouraging children to read and much less emphasis is put to the joy of reading. Even less mention is made of the aspect of copyright which is an integral part of this special observance. In fact, it is not unusual to find references to this day as World Book Day – excluding copyright altogether. This is an incorrect reference as April 23 is in fact the World Book and Copyright Day. The confusion may be due to the UK influence where World Book Day is celebrated during the first week of March.

One of the main views on copyright law is that it enhances creativity by allowing creators to benefit from their work. The first copyright statute in England, the Statute of Anne, included a stated purpose which was to “encourage learning”. Another view is that copyright law ensures that the authors are paid fairly for their efforts. Copyright law, in fact, grants authors many rights but also limits these rights in many important ways. A number of these limitations enable libraries to use or disseminate copyrighted material more freely than they otherwise could. The Fair Use Doctrine is one of the most important limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright holder. It allows that copyright can be infringed because strict application of the law impedes the production and dissemination of works to the public.

Once the copyright in a work expires, the particular work is said to “fall into” the public domain. Once the work is in the public domain, the restrictions stipulated in the copyright law of the particular country no longer apply and anyone may copy, reuse or share the work as they wish. Locally, the expiry date is set as 70 years after the death of the author for traditional works and 15 years for databases.

It must be stated that several international treaties set standards that all participating countries must follow when adopting or changing their copyright law. Maltese legislation incorporates all obligations arising from these conventions (Malta is a signatory of nine treaties) and is in line with the Trips agreement and the EU Acquis. However, within those limits, each nation sets its own laws. Malta has a Copyright Law which was enacted through Act XIII of 2000. Over the years, this act has been consolidated through various other Acts and supported with three sets of regulations as subsidiary legislation.

With the advent of the internet the whole realm of copyright became a bit hazy and misconceptions started creeping in. The main misconception is that “if it is on the internet, it’s ‘public domain’”. In reality, a work is only in the public domain when the copyright protection period has expired or when the copyright owner clearly states that they have placed it in the public domain. Works published on the internet will normally carry a copyright notice even if there is no notice. Anyone using the internet as a source for finding information (whether it’s for educational or recreational purposes) should presume that the material is in copyright and may only be used (in whole or part) in accordance with any conditions published on the particular site.

If no conditions of use are given, one should contact the site owner for details of the copyright owner so that permission to reuse the information available is obtained. And although the handling of copyright for books seemed relatively straightforward, we are now dealing with a more complex scenario concerning e-books.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) has uses far beyond simply enforcing traditional and long-standing protections extant in current law. By embedding controls within the product, providers can prevent the public from use that is non-infringing under copyright law as well as enforce restrictions that extend far beyond those specific rights enumerated in the Copyright Acts (or other laws). Thus, DRM changes the fundamental relationship between the creators, publishers and users, to the detriment of creators, users and the institutions that serve them. DRM, if not carefully balanced, limits the ability of libraries and schools to serve the information needs of their users and their communities in several ways.

In my opinion, there is a need for more awareness on this topic and public libraries have an important role to play.

Apart from dealing with the traditional printed media, public libraries worldwide have been dealing with electronic resources for a number of years now and they are often looked upon as an important intermediary between the ocean of information (plus misinformation and disinformation) available online and the public. Public libraries’ staff should have the skills necessary to find, evaluate and provide information resources available online and also to educate their users on their rights and obligations on copyright issues. It is not uncommon to see children using the internet for their projects without any attention to origin and quality of the source, as well as little concern for copyright issues.

My main message is that we need to empower public libraries to carry out their roles through the provision of financial and human resource investments. The traditional role of public libraries as book circulation outlets will continue but this alone will not be enough for them to survive. Unless we provide a vision and revamp the way libraries work, our public libraries will continue to struggle to attract the attention of an audience which has various other forms of entertainment available.

There are various case studies available on how libraries have reinvented themselves as community information centres and become a hive of activities for young and old people alike. We need the commitment of politicians, investment from the public sector and an invigorated and trained public library staff ready and willing to embrace change. The standards of our public libraries must rise as does the range and quality of services that are currently being provided. Educating users, making them information literate and informing them about their rights and duties concerning issues such as copyright should fall within the competencies of public library staff who are in contact with users.

The author is chairman of the government-appointed Malta Libraries Council and council member of the Malta Library and Information Association (MaLIA).


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