Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 5 • May 2002

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Pondering Fair Use
by Kathy Dempsey 

I don't think it was coincidental that, during the month we were putting this issue together, I had my own miniature legal dilemma. It began as I was innocently reading the magazine section of the local Sunday newspaper. It was one of those interesting yet disturbing articles about how pharmaceutical salespeople pander to doctors, court them, and give them wonderful free stuff. The stated intention of the salespeople is to deliver information, of course, but the article was questioning how much this influenced the doctors and their choices of prescription drugs, etc.

About two-thirds of the way through the article, I came upon a passage that turned on that little lightbulb that floats above my head. I realized that some of this content would be great supporting material for apresentation that I was scheduled to make to a group of SLA's pharmaceutical and health technology librarians. "Great!" I thought to myself, "I'll photocopy this article and add it to my handouts."

But before I could even finish thinking that sentence to myself, another one interrupted it: "What about copyright?"Conveniently, I was in the middle of working on this issue of CIL, so I thought that I'd be able to figure out whether I could use this article or not. No problem, right?

I thought about the four-question test for fair use (which is outlined in a couple of our feature articles). Would I be using the article for educational purposes, or would it be used for profit? Is the work factual or fictional? What portion of the work would be used? Finally, I had to consider the effect that my usage would have on the market value of the article. I could answer most of these questions, but I still wasn't crystal clear on exactly what the fair use guidelines meant in my case.

And there's the rub: You have to use guidelines to interpret what the law means for every circumstance. It's not easy! Even though I had just read every single article in this issue—some of them twice—I still was not totally sure about how to proceed. So I've come to an even better understanding of what many of you are going through every week!

While this magazine obviously can't answer all your questions and can't give you legal advice, it can at the very least do for you what it did for me—it can tell you what questions to ask, give you the guidelines, and point you to lots more resources. Building awareness of today's laws, illustrating how they're changing, and telling you where to find the official details are great services that this issue can provide.

In case you're wondering how my own story ends, I haven't decided yet. I may just photocopy that section of the article, or just extract a couple quotes and cite them. Or I may call the magazine and ask for permission to use the whole thing. Or I may just stand at the podium and say, "There was this great article I read that said ..."

Kathy Dempsey, Editor

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