There has been an ongoing discussion on the PUBLIB listserv for the last week or so. It started off with a short question:
A patron checks out 20 music CDs. Proceeds to rip them to his laptop while in the library. Then returns them.
What should I have done? Is that copyright violation? Should I have told him? Stopped him?
What the thread has evolved into is a strange journey through the psyche of the public librarians around the country. What I thought was pretty simply slam dunk of an answer (“It’s a copyright violation happening right in front of you. You should have stopped it and informed the patron what they were doing was illegal”) has stirred what I can only imagine (and hope) are fringe perspectives. It ranges from the absurd idea that patron privacy is ABSOLUTE even in the face of overt illegal activities to screeds against corporations and their profit making with some excuse making arguments between regarding the value of staff confrontation with patrons (a non-starter) and the milquetoast “We don’t actually KNOW what they are going to do with the CDs after they rip them” shrug-of-the-shoulders (extraordinarily weak looking the other way mentality).
While I’m relieved that there were other librarians on the list who rebutted these suppositions, there was a very dismayed “WTF” moment to the whole thread. The casual manner in which peers were willing to set aside the law in the face of an overt copyright violation is rather disheartening as society moves towards another intellectual property turning point. I’m not suggesting that librarians kick in doors or engage in surveillance of patrons at their homes, but the profession can do its part in educating the public as to the current copyright law and what it means for them.
Lest we forget that these patrons are also voters, represented by their elected officials on both the state and national level. If they really have a problem with the current copyright laws, then they are well positioned to take actions on changing those laws. It would be rightfully cynical to think that one person doesn’t have a shot at changing the overall status quo, especially not in the face the deep pockets of the entertainment industry. But librarians can foster those people at the personal level with a greater eye towards a longer term cultural attitude change. It will not be an instant gratification moment that we have become inclined towards, but something on a longer term over generations.
The people who cast aside the profit motive forget that they benefit from it in indirect ways. It can be through sales tax collected locally on purchased works; the companies that employ people in their area to develop, make, manufacture, and sell those items; and let’s not forget those corporate sponsorships for library programs and conferences that the profession likes to have every year. It is the profit motive that facilitates the sale of content to libraries in the first place. If those companies feel that libraries are hurting their bottom line by not defending their intellectual content (and they exist), then they are going to be less motivated to sell content to us or attach an increasing amount of strings (such as DRM) to the product.
The fact of the matter is that being lax on copyright does not get a chair at the table the next time it becomes a priority to change. It weakens our standing within that conversation to be turning a blind eye or offering up weak rationales for not educating the public or taking action when warranted. It is true that we cannot control what patrons do beyond our front door, but librarians can act on what they see and hear on the inside. The smug arrogance of a ‘sticking it to the man’ now costs the institution in the form of reputation and credibility in the future.
How would you answer this question? What are your thoughts on it?