April 19, 2018

Harvard’s Copyright First Responders to the Rescue

Question copyright

While most academic librarians are familiar with the basics of copyright law, the questions they’re asked are getting more complex. Issues of fair use and open access, MOOCs and repositories, and the push to digitize mean that students and faculty need more guidance on copyright matters than ever. This spring Kyle K. Courtney, Harvard University’s copyright advisor, brought together a pilot group of librarians known as Copyright First Responders (CFRs) to address this situation. The CFRs, who work in libraries across campus, are spending the summer in Courtney’s Copyright Immersion program studying the intricacies of copyright law. In fall 2014 they’ll begin serving as the first line of defense for copyright concerns expressed by students, staff, and faculty.

Courtney, who has been at Harvard since 2010, has been working out of the Office for Scholarly Communication for the past year. With funding from a Harvard Library Lab grant in 2011 he founded the first Harvard Library Copyright Working Group and began developing the Copyright and Fair Use Tool, an interactive online resource for the university community. Discussions about the website, however, revealed points that it couldn’t adequately address. Fair use is a gray area, Courtney explained to LJ, requiring a level of fact-based analysis that can’t be programmed. “The tool teaches,” he said, “but what about judgment?”

A survey among librarians attending his popular lecture series, “Library Copyright 101,” revealed that over half of them dealt with some form of copyright issues on a regular basis, often every day. Courtney himself was receiving an average of 20 questions a day in the summer, when most classes weren’t even in session. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he thought, “if there was some formalized structure in place to deal with these questions?”

Courtney is a law librarian with a background in intellectual property law, but he doesn’t have expertise in many other subjects that require copyright guidance. Harvard, however, has a rich resource in the librarians who staff its 71 libraries, many of whom are already subject experts. While most colleges and universities have a copyright office, he felt that it might be more effective to develop a decentralized network operating out of each library, building on the wide range of subject-specific knowledge already in place.

So two years ago Courtney began reaching out to librarians he’d worked with, or who had expressed an interest in learning more about copyright law. The inaugural CFR cohort is made up of 15 librarians, with a mix of specialties ranging from music and visual resources to law, digital course content, and rare books. All have committed to participating in Courtney’s weekly Copyright Immersion program, an informal class combining readings, lectures, workshops, and guest speakers such as Peter Hirtle (on the public domain) and Peter Suber (on open access). Courtney brings national and international legal case studies and questions he’s fielded from the university community, sparking discussions about practical concerns such as parameters for recent digitization initiatives, publishing electronic dissertations, contracts and licensing, and when—and how—to say “no.” Throughout it all, he stresses how important libraries are to copyright enforcement.

Though CFRs do not receive extra compensation—they are granted release time to attend class, which is considered professional development—their enthusiasm hasn’t waned through an entire summer of Tuesday night meetings. Leslie Burmeister, information resource specialist at Baker Library, told LJ how much she appreciates the dedicated time and space to talk about copyright, and the opportunity to share information with her fellow librarians. And she commends Courtney’s presentation of law and theory together, his “legalese cut through with real-life examples.”

When the program launches this fall, each library hosting a CFR will hold a brown-bag meeting, featuring a 20-minute presentation in which the resident CFR and Courtney teach a case study of the Georgia State e-reserve copyright decision, and a Q&A period. And they are already planning activities for Fair Use Week next year. Eventually Courtney will use OCLC’s QuestionPoint 24/7 reference service to aggregate and track the questions posed to CFRs in order to refine the program.

These events will also help Courtney find out who else is interested in becoming a responder. He envisions CFR as a “hub-and-spoke” program, with the first cohort becoming an advisory board to future generations. Already he is getting email from librarians expressing interest, as well as requests from other libraries to work with them. The program currently draws its funding from an Arcadia grant supporting the Office of Scholarly Communication, but Courtney believes it is extensible not only to other higher learning institutions, but public and K-12 libraries as well.

Kenneth Crews, former director of Columbia University’s Copyright Advisory Office and author of Copyright Law for Librarians and Educators, told LJ he thought CFR was an excellent idea. However, he cautioned, “I would want to make sure participants are not just well educated about copyright, but that they understand clearly what questions they should answer and what questions they should NOT answer.” In other words, there’s a fine line between delivering legal information and delivering legal advice. Fortunately, the “First Responders” handle is well considered. “It’s triage,” says CFR Carol Kentner, digital course content manager at Gutman Library. “The paramedics keep the patient alive in the ambulance, and then hand him over to the doctor”—that is, one of Harvard’s copyright specialists, or Kyle Courtney himself.

Courtney believes strongly in developing a culture of shared understanding, and the program has received glowing feedback so far. His librarians are equally excited. It helps, also, that he is a well-liked instructor who can breathe life into his subject. Or as CFR Kentner puts it, “Kyle makes copyright law fun—if you can have ‘copyright law’ and ‘fun’ in the same sentence.”

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. Thank you for this really helpful article. For those of us teaching with a variety of texts and sources, a resource like this one can help expand awareness and understanding of use of copyrighted work, something I think many of my colleagues find a frustrating impediment to flexible additions to reading lists throughout a term.. More pieces like this one, please!