From The Desk of the Permissions Editor: A New TEC Blog Series

by Nadine Bachan

Published at 2011-09-23

In her last blog, “The Texture of Technology,” Beth touched on the subject of e-books. Talk about e-books always prompts me to think about copyright. Well, most things prompt me to think about permissions and copyright these days.
I’ve been inspired to begin a series of blogs, From The Desk of the Permissions Editor, where I’ll shed some light and offer some guidance on the complex world of copyright and permissions.
In This Inaugural Blog: Copyright Law in a Digital World …
The way that technology has been incorporated into publishing has quickly become a complicated phenomenon. E-books, e-content, and e-formats — it’s all especially complex when looking at things from the point of view of the permissions editor.
It might appear that the rules and limitations of copyright are becoming more flexible (especially as more and more e-books and on-line resources become available to the public). However, as an editor who has plodded through piles of paperwork and mulled over the fine print of contracts, I’ve found that e-rights can be the most difficult form of permissions to deal with and the most overlooked.
Taking Chances
Recently, the publishing industry has been abuzz with the news that five U.S. universities, in a partnership called the HathiTrust, are developing a free on-line library, comprised of millions of e-books, for their students. The site was scheduled to go live on October 13th, but there has since been a wave of protest from several publishers and copyright holders worldwide to stop the launch.
Why are these people so upset? Because, along with many Fair Use books (also known as out-of-copyright publications), these universities, without asking permission, were including digitized versions of books in their library that still have copyright attached to them.
In their defense, a spokesperson for the HathiTrust stated “that the books are ‘orphans’ because the copyright holder is unknown or unable to be tracked down.”
In my experience as a permission editor, that excuse is flimsy at best.
Playing It Safe
It’s a common misconception that images and text found on-line or not correctly sourced are up for grabs. Just because you may not be able to find a source for an image does not mean it’s clear and free to use in any way you please. Even if the material you want to use is considered Fair Use (U.S.) or Fair Dealing (Canada), it is still your responsibility to properly confirm such details.
If you’re in doubt of where a photo originated from or who the photographer was, you can easily find an alternative from a stock photo agency (Getty and Corbis have millions of stunning photographs available for purchase) or reputable press sites such CP Images or GetStock for editorial images.
In Canada, if you’re in doubt of the source for a work of literature, you can write to the Copyright Board in Ottawa asking for permission to use the material. You need to provide proof that you’ve made three attempts to find the copyright holder. The Board determines whether you can use the material. Or it will send you additional contacts that may be of help in finding the copyright holder.
Learn from the mistakes of groups like the HathiTrust and follow the cardinal rule: Never assume Fair Dealing — copyright is attached to everything.
In the next From The Desk of the Permissions Editor blog: The smart evolution of Wikipedia and the finer details of Fair Dealing.