For many information professionals, copyright fascinates and confounds. Copyright is glossed over in many classes, and librarians struggle to find clear answers to questions that arise in their practice. In the early days of a career, it is easy to blame youth for your befuddlement, but as years pass it becomes more and more difficult to plead ignorance. I have turned to a number of resources, including books, seminars, and massive online open courses, but all have skimmed over practical issues. For many librarians, copyright is simply a hurdle, not a concept to be lingered over, and swift resolutions to imperative questions are invaluable. Copyright Questions and Answers for Information Professionals: From the Columns of Against the Grain by Laura N. Gasaway goes a long way in fulfilling that need.
Gasaway, a recognized expert on copyright, has been wrangling with copyright problems for fifteen years now, answering questions from readers in a regular column in Against the Grain, the periodical offshoot of the Charleston Conferences. In her column, she addresses her audience of librarians, publishers, teachers, and authors, clearing the fog and replacing it with clear practicalities, one query at a time.
In her new offering, these questions and answers have been curated, updated, organized, and reassembled, giving readers access, in a single work, to Gasaway’s experience and expertise that was before scattered throughout her columns. Gasaway covers all the usual suspects, including fair use rights, library reserves, licensing, interlibrary loan, preservation, software, and digitization. Question-and-answer pairings are organized into topical chapters, and the book finishes with an emerging issues chapter providing current content on timely subjects such as HathiTrust and the first sale doctrine.
Each chapter features a brief introduction that provides context, but the value of the text lies in her answers to each questioner’s specific needs. While this idiosyncrasy does make the book poorly suited for cover-to-cover reading, it is perfect for quick reference. Other popular copyright texts use the question-and-answer format to show applications of broad concepts, but since the questions posed in this book are wide-ranging and true to life, it effectively provides applicable answers to specific questions. Unfortunately, this also means that when looking for concrete answers, there is no guarantee that guidance for a given question is present between the covers.
In this case, a comprehensive and exhaustive index holds the key to unlocking the precious wisdom inside this book. This is a weakness of the book. While a primarily question-and-answer format leads you to believe that this work would be well-suited for novices, specialized vocabulary or specific portions of the Copyright Acts are often indexed instead of the words used by the questioner. Underutilized cross references again hinder those without a strong knowledge base, and while excellent term definitions and clear, concise summaries of concepts are repeatedly provided throughout the text, the index does not easily lead a reader to them. Not having comprehensive keyword references may seem to avoid redundancy, but instead it limits usability. Readers will not be approaching this text with exact replicas of existing questions, but instead will need to glean their own answers through a careful reading of answers to similar inquires. Because the language of exact inquires is not carefully indexed, an e-book version of this work would be preferable, allowing readers to perform keyword searches and thus work with whatever vocabulary they have on hand.
While the index and other minor inconsistencies keep Gasaway’s content from shining as brightly as it should, Gasaway deserves great praise for her work’s greatest strength: her ability to strike a balance between handing out specific advice and teaching readers strategies to navigate the treacherous waters around best practices and general guidelines. Guidelines and fair use do not lend themselves to cut-and-dry answers, making many copyright texts full of generalizations. However, Gasaway brilliantly teaches her lessons through examples, focusing not only on the use of best practices, but also on the importance of careful risk assessment. She reminds readers that copyright is rarely a firm line, unfortunate though it seems. Instead, application of copyright law is often nebulous. Gasaway’s well-balanced advice guides readers in making their own choices, weighing their options, and choosing to overcome their copyright hurdles the way that is most appropriate for them. In this role, Gasaway is truly a master of her craft.
This book review first appeared in 106 Law Libr. J. 108-109 (2014).