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Magazines > Information Today > June 2013

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Information Today

Vol. 30 No. 6 — June 2013

Copyright Advisor as Library CEO
by K. Matthew Dames

In March 2013, Syracuse University provost Eric Spina appointed me to succeed my boss, Suzanne Thorin, as dean of the libraries and university librarian. Although the nomination is an interim appointment, the interim status won’t diminish the workload or the responsibility. It is a tremendous opportunity, and I am thankful to the provost for the appointment and to the dean for supporting the appointment and preparing me for its challenges.

Thorin hired me to be Syracuse’s first copyright and information policy advisor in 2008. The appointment came reasonably soon after the Association of American Publishers (AAP) reached agreements with Syracuse, Hofstra University, and Marquette University on copyright guidelines affirming that educational content delivered to students in digital formats should be treated under the same copyright principles that apply to printed materials. In Syracuse’s case, it reached the agreement after AAP threatened the university with a federal copyright infringement lawsuit.

In September 2006, AAP reached a similar agreement with Cornell University concerning copyright guidelines governing the use of digital course materials. (According to federal court documents, AAP members also made similar overtures to Georgia State University concerning the use of digital educational content. That contact resulted in litigation. After a federal trial court decision of a favorable holding to Georgia State, the case is on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.)

Throughout my tenure working at Syracuse University libraries, I have been a member of Thorin’s executive team. As such, I have helped craft strategy, policy, and decisions about the university’s libraries, its operations, its budget, and its future. Still, as recently as a year ago, I shared my concerns with colleagues at other universities that my career progress had stalled, mostly because I felt typecast as “only” a copyright expert. At least for the time being, I have managed to move the label, but I know several talented and brilliant colleagues who are still limited by this characterization. It is time universities, libraries, and recruiters begin to consider the copyright advisor or copyright librarian position not only as a critical functional role but as a position from which future library deans, leaders, and chief executives can emerge.

Copyright’s Reach Through Critical Library Functions

When I graduated from law school, my constitutional law professor, Judith Olans Brown, gave me some of the best advice I have ever received: A good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows law and the client’s business. A similar truth prevails about library copyright advisors. The best of them know more than the Copyright Act of 1976; they connect the dots between the act and integral library operations and functions.

I see two examples that illuminate these connections. In an environment where every parent and student openly questions whether or not to pay as much as $50,000 per year (or more) for a child’s undergraduate education, a university should exploit any competitive advantage it has. The library can be one of a university’s primary competitive advantages. Further, I believe the quality and depth of a university library’s special collections not only provides unique research value for members of that scholarly community, but they provide those community members with access to a unique resource that other schools cannot duplicate. Few schools can duplicate or match the Belfer Audio Archive or the Marcel Breuer Digital Archive from Syracuse’s Special Collections Research Center (SCRC), just as few can duplicate or match Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library.

About 20% of my work throughout my nearly 5-year term as Syracuse’s copyright advisor has involved collaborating with SCRC senior director Sean Quimby on all manner of work and strategic initiatives, including deeds of gift, streaming policies, access and security policies, negotiations with international and domestic partners, and the increasingly common tendency of heirs to seek to exercise control over materials their parents have authored or donated.

The second example concerns principal collections. Most research libraries’ principal collections are turning inexorably toward the electronic format. Syracuse is no exception: Depending upon major functional discipline (humanities, sciences, or social sciences), our collections range from 50% to nearly 80% electronic. Even though the migration from print to electronic moves the prevailing legal construct from copyright to contract, the contract component of electronic scholarship procurement retains a significant copyright component. The definition of “authorized user,” the parameters of fair use before additional payment, the library’s ability to use the research products in interlibrary loan transactions, and managing the ridiculous but increasingly prevalent notion that faculty cannot assign scholarship as reading material without paying an additional use fee (yes, Harvard Business School Press, I am pointing a finger at you) all have critical copyright law and policy components.

These issues directly affect the bottom line. The cost of principal collections is routinely a research library’s second highest budgetary line item, behind personnel. This means copyright law and policy issues can affect as much as 40% of a research library’s annual budget. The savvy copyright advisor not only recognizes this, but he or she makes this and other connections apparent to library and university leadership. Further, the astute advisor has the education, the intellectual heft, and the political shrewdness to connect the dots between the cost of scholarship the library pays on the back end and the practice of faculty surrendering their copyright rights through publication contracts on the front end.

From Copyright Advisor to Dean

The copyright advisor position can be a great training ground for the next wave of library leaders. It is a fortunate coincidence that the number of copyright advisors working in major research libraries is increasing at the same time the number of libraries seeking executive leadership is also increasing. Just based upon numbers, we will see more copyright advisors leading research libraries.

But the best copyright advisor may not be the best university librarian. To return to my former law professor’s adage, the best copyright advisors don’t just parse Section 108 or interpret in plain language the first sale doctrine. The best ones show the library executive team how these laws affect your current initiatives, how they may affect future initiatives, and how the library can achieve its objectives in spite of (or even because of) what copyright law says—or even what it doesn’t say. The copyright advisors who can make the transition to library executive management aren’t necessarily the best lawyers. However, they are the best businesspeople who also happen to know the law.

K. Matthew Dames is the executive editor of The Piracy Paradigm ( and Copycense ( Send your comments about this article to
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