Why is the Copyright Office Trying to Reform Section 108?

On July 26, the Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) met with the Copyright Office, in response to the Office’s Notice of Inquiry, to give our views on Section 108—namely, LCA’s opposition to amendment. LCA previously released a statement, consistent with previous documents and statements, expressing deep concern over efforts to reform Section 108. As LCA noted in its most recent statement on Section 108, the library community opposes reform of this section because: 1) Section 108 is not obsolete; 2) fair use provides a sufficient update when necessary; 3) amending Section 108 has inherent risks and could limit what libraries currently do today, including the possibility of affecting fair use; 4) amendment of this section would be highly contentious and a time and resource intensive process.

LCA opened the meeting by reiterating our opposition to reform of Section 108, expanding on the points made in the written statement. Many libraries similarly voiced opposition to Section 108 reform during their meetings with the Copyright Office. Given that the vast majority of the community benefiting from the exception does not want to see Section 108 amended, it is disconcerting that the Copyright Office is planning to go ahead with a recommendation to reform this provision of the Copyright Act. Archives, the other beneficiaries of Section 108, have also voiced opposition to Section 108 reform (see: Society of American Archivists and the Internet Archive statements and blog posts). Given that beneficiaries of this provision oppose any updates to Section 108, that—according to those who actually rely on the provision on a daily basis—Section 108 is not obsolete and continues to function well forty years after its enactment, on what basis is the Copyright Office going forward with its recommendation?

When LCA met with the Copyright Office, we were given two answers. The first, the Copyright Office said, is to add museums as a beneficiary to Section 108, a recommendation made by the Section 108 Study Group. The Copyright Office argued that as a potential beneficiary, museums were strong advocates for reform. The second reason was decidedly less persuasive. Supposedly, authors who benefit from library access and are therefore beneficiaries of Section 108 have advocated for amendment to this provision. While authors may certainly be affected by the various limitations and exceptions under copyright law, it is doubtful that groups such as the Authors Guild want reform because of insufficient access to works under Section 108. Of course, because of the way the Copyright Office structured the process—requiring in person meetings or, if necessary, phone discussions—there is no written record.

One of the big complaints LCA has had about the current process is this utter lack of transparency regarding the meetings. LCA’s written statement noted, “LCA is concerned about the lack of transparency relating to this inquiry. LCA expects the Copyright Office to publish a list of the interested parties it meets in the course of this inquiry as well as a detailed summary of what each of these parties advised.” While the Copyright Office has agreed to release a list of everyone they have met with regarding Section 108 reform, it will not be issuing a summary of what was discussed in those meetings. The lack of substantive information regarding the topics of conversation and recommendations by various stakeholders is disappointing. We will not know the substance of the reforms proposed by stakeholders. While authors may indeed be pushing for 108 reform, as the Copyright Office stated in LCA’s meeting, whether it is because they find a lack of access to works in libraries (as the Copyright Office implied) or because they want to restrict library activity (as the Authors Guild certainly tried to do as evidenced by their lawsuit and briefs in its litigation against HathiTrust) cannot be confirmed.

Furthermore, without a written record, comments made during the meeting may be misunderstood. LCA did, for example, discuss some substantive changes to 108 that might be beneficial while trying to reiterate opposition to reform. However, could the Copyright Office construe it as support for reform? Could the Copyright Office issue a legislative proposal and state that the Library Copyright Alliance was supportive of certain concepts, such as contract preemption (a provision which would specify that contracts cannot override limitations and exceptions), and therefore supportive of reform? Hopefully, the Copyright Office will be upfront in any recommendation it makes by putting its proposal in the proper context, explaining that stakeholders have differing approaches and positions with respect to 108 reform efforts.

Ultimately, it seems like a waste of time to put in so much effort to try to reform a section of the copyright law that is actually functioning pretty well. Contrary to the Copyright Office’s repeated assertions that Section 108 is “obsolete,” libraries rely on this provision every day to make preservation copies, to replace items in older formats, to engage in inter-library loan, to reproduce copies for patrons, and more. Copyright Office resources would be better spent addressing areas of copyright that are in greater need of reform, like Section 1201 and the incredibly burdensome process by which one must go through to request an exemption (which the Copyright Office is indeed reviewing), statutory damages, or truly outdated sections of the Copyright Act that refer to things like coin-operated equipment and players (a comment brought up by Jonathan Band during LCA’s meeting).

What’s next? Instead of focusing on the areas in true need of reform or sections that are obsolete, the Copyright Office is pushing forward with a proposal to reform a functioning section of the law. The Copyright Office noted that it was wrapping up its meetings with stakeholders and that it was unlikely to solicit any written comments. The Copyright Office stated that it would prepare a legislative recommendation to be released in the fall or winter. ARL and LCA will carefully review the proposal once it is released. Ultimately, however, the inherent risks in reforming Section 108 are unlikely to outweigh what may be modest benefits in an update to a section of the copyright act that is actually working.

For Further Reading: TechDirt recently released a great post explaining, “Copyright Office Intent on Changing The Part of Copyright That Protects Libraries & Archives, Even Though No One Wants it Changed.”

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