v32#2 Legally Speaking — Librarians, Publishers, and Educators Help out During the Coronavirus Pandemic

by | May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

by Anthony Paganelli  (Western Kentucky University) 

As a light spring rain falls, I am currently writing this column in my home while my wife is conducting a Zoom meeting with her colleagues, and the children are doing school work on their devices.  I joked with them that their new at home school is called the “School of Constant Sorrow.”  Of course, I thought it was funny, but they just rolled their eyes.  Now it is called, the “Paganelli Learning Academy.” 

While we are practicing “social distancing” during this global pandemic, I realized that we are witnessing an historical moment.  I can honestly say, I have never witnessed such mass closures and uncertainty in our communities, nor have I ever heard of “social distancing” until March 2020.  We have even encouraged our children to periodically write in a journal about their experiences, so they can share them with others in the future.  This time has truly been frightening to encounter and endure.  

The coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic is causing thousands of the deaths across the world, healthcare systems are stretched far beyond their capacities, it is crippling national economies, causing chaos amongst the masses, the sports and entertainment industry is taking a hiatus, and social interactions are changing rapidly.  And during this time, the world is watching and praising health care workers who are battling the virus on the frontlines.  They are risking their lives and sacrificing time away from their loved ones, as well as witnessing the devastation that the virus leaves.  Thousands of first responders are also placing themselves in harm’s way to help others.  Several good Samaritans are contributing to aiding those in need and others are helping the best way that they possibly can. 

It was a very difficult situation.  Naturally, humans want to be helpful, but when you are told that you could do more harm by reaching out and helping, it becomes frustrating and depressing when you can’t.  However, we are all doing the best we can through the knowledge and experiences that each of us possess.  For instance, businesses are adapting to continue to provide goods and services, manufactures are changing their production lines to produce medical equipment and supplies, and more people are thinking of other ways to contribute, such as people using their sewing machines to produce masks.

It has been good to see people coming together and helping in the best way that they can.  While librarians may not be able to physically reach out to our communities due to the restrictions, we have sprung into action with our experience and wisdom.  As librarians, we have many roles that have been helpful to others during the pandemic.  The most notable way librarians are helping are providing resources to teachers and students.  Millions of students across the world are studying at home.  In the United States, teachers worked diligently and swiftly to adjust their learning outcomes and means of instruction to meet the new “Non-Traditional Instructional” initiative.  In order to help provide these resources to their students, librarians stepped up to assist. 

Numerous librarians have reached out to teachers and faculty to best assist them as they transitioned their learning resources online or as they distributed printed copies to students without computers or Internet access.  Some librarians have provided information via email, telephone, video conferencing, websites, and through blogs.  The University of Florida has even created a Coronavirus Library Guide that has provided information for faculty regarding copyright as they transitioned their course assignments online.  This is a major way librarians are assisting teachers and students.

Librarians’ Statement

A statement was released on March 13, 2020 by a group of academic librarians, public librarians, and library administrators that provided information regarding fair use and emergency remote teaching and research.  The authors noted that copyright restrictions do not go away because of “a public health crisis.”  The statement contends that the copyright law was created to help in this type of emergency based on the constitution’s goal “to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts,” which is through Fair Use. 

Librarians were able to provide information for teachers about the relief from copyright resources, which are provided through the U.S. Code 17 § 108 Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Reproduction by Libraries and Museums and U.S. Code 17 § 107 Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Fair Use.  Section 107 is the most important section for educators based on “the purpose and character of use,” which is for non-profit educational purposes. 

As the authors of the statement noted, “It is evident that making materials available and accessible to students in this time of crisis will almost always be fair use.  As long as we are being thoughtful in our analysis and limiting our activities to the specific needs of our patrons during this time of crisis, copyright law supports our uses.” The statement also included a link to resources for fair use and emergency remote teaching and research materials.

The statement concluded with information for copyright holders.  The authors noted that the statement was in support of copyright laws, but the statement also mentioned the extreme situation and pressure educators endured transitioning materials and resources to their students due to the pandemic.  Further information highlighted other resources for educators to seek, such as resources that were in public domain and already licensed online content. 

Publishers Offer Relief

As librarians offered assistance, publishers began to offer some relief for educators and book sellers.  The Association of American Publishers released a list of education publishers that were providing support for students and educators during this pandemic.  Many of the publishers issued statements and guidelines for fair use and offered benefits for librarians, educators, and students for the remainder of the spring term. 

For example, Cambridge University Press has offered free online access to their higher educational textbooks.  K-12 institutions are also receiving some relief from Cengage’s National Geographic learning platforms and eBooks. 

MacMillan Learning are offering college professors that had adapted their print books to receive free access to their online learning platforms for the remainder of the term.  In addition, MacMillan Children’s Publishing Group has created a “database of activities, educator guides, discussion guides, and other downloadable resources to make them easily accessible and shareable for booksellers, educators, librarians, and parents.”  McGraw Hill has also provided assistance to educators and students.  The list of publishers assisting is extensive.

In addition to textbook assistance, Chronicle Books are allowing librarians and teachers to read-aloud their titles for free.  Librarians and teachers can read their books either live or pre-recorded.  Other read-aloud publishers include Disney Publishing Worldwide, Scholastic, Bloomsbury Kids, and Candlewick have specific guidelines regarding how the books are read-aloud and presented. 

In an effort to provide research information for Coronavirus researchers and other similar research interests, Taylor & Francis Group has created the “COVID-19: Novel Coronavirus Content Free to Access” site.”  According to the site, “Taylor & Francis is committed to helping public health authorities, researchers, clinicians and the general public contain and manage the spread of the COVID-19.”  The site “provides links and references to all relevant COVID-19 research articles, book chapters and information that can be freely accessed.”  The company is also working with editors, peer-reviewers, and researchers to ensure the information is prioritized.

Museums Adapting

The American Alliance of Museums has also provided information for the public and those in the museums profession with resources and information regarding the coronavirus that included educating the public on COVID-19 and preparing for closures.  The museums quickly realized the need to provide and engage their audiences through digital means as the museums were being closed across the nation. 

Same as libraries and publishers, the museums have begun to provide resources for the public via online platforms, such as websites and social media.  The American Alliance of Museums provided museums four best options to engage patrons remotely, which were social media campaigns, virtual streaming, virtual tours, and through artificial reality.  For instance, people can take a virtual tour of the USS Constitution through the USS Constitution Museum’s Facebook page, as well as a virtual tour of the Metropolitan Art Museum

A wonderful social media campaign that went viral recently was the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.  The administrators gave their head of security Tim Tiller charge of the museum’s social media accounts.  His social media posts while touring the museum during its closure went viral, mostly because he had no clue about social media, which was quickly noticeable as he wrote the word “hashtag” instead of the actual symbol.  In fact his first post to Instagram stated, “I’m new to social media but excited to share what I am told is called ‘content’ on all of The Cowboy’s what I am told are ‘platforms’ including the Twitter, the Facebook, and the Instagram.”  His social media posts elevated the museum to a national level and advocated for the heritage of the region’s culture. 

Future of Copyright in a Public Crisis

The pandemic continues to cause thousands of deaths and is devastating national economies.  People are changing the way we are interacting with each other, especially as we communicate through Zoom and other devices.  While most people can’t physically help, librarians, educators, publishers, researchers, and even museum security guards are working diligently to provide resources and materials to students and our community during this pandemic. 

The librarians’ statement regarding fair use during a public health crisis brings an issue to the foreground.  While the statement and the code itself is reassuring that people receive sufficient resources for educational purpose during times of hardship, the situation does raise the question of how to best handle copyright issues during a public health crisis.  In other words, should there be an addition or revision to the U.S. Code § 107 to provide exemptions on copyrighted materials for educational purposes during a crisis. 

Fair use is an important part of U.S. copyright law and it does provide some relief for educational purposes.  Yet, fair use is a difficult law to assess.  Elkin-Koren and Fischman-Afori (2017) stated, “Applying the four factors of fair use involves complex analysis, which may lead to unpredictable outcomes, thus failing to offer sufficient guidance to users on whether a particular use is permissible.  Some users, especially risk-averse users such as libraries or schools, may choose to avoid certain uses which are otherwise desirable and could promote copyright goals simply due to uncertainty regarding the legal consequences.”

Because fair use does not provide an exact amount of copyrighted material that can be used before it is declared infringed, there are various interpretations to the law, which hinders some people and organizations from maximizing fair use.  Maybe in the future, a revision could be added to 17 § 107 that would provide a more detailed amount of fair use that could be utilized for educational purposes during a national crisis.  The concept would most likely never enter legislation, but it is a thought.  Of course during this crisis, it is good that publishers, authors, researchers, librarians, and educators are rising to the challenge and working within the law to provide affordable options for our teachers, students, and our communities.  Stay safe!


AAP.  (2020).  COVID-19 Response.  Association of American Publishers.  Retrieved from https://publishers.org/aap-news/covid-19-response/.

American Alliance of Museums.  (2020).  Using digital platforms to remain connected to audiences during closures.  Retrieved from https://www.aam-us.org/programs/about-museums/using-digital-platforms-to-remain-connected-to-audiences-during-quarantines/.

Collins, P.  (2020).  Getting your course online during COVID-19.  University of Florida Libraries Guides: Copyright on Campus.  Retrieved from https://guides.uflib.ufl.edu/copyright.

Elkin-Koren, N. and Fischman-Afori, O.  (2017).  Rulifying Fair Use.  Arizona Law Review, 59(1), 161-200.

Library Statement.  (2020).  Public statement: Fair Use & Emergency Remote Teaching & Research.  Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/document/d/10baTITJbFRh7D6dHVVvfgiGP2zqaMvm0EHHZYf2cBRk/mobilebasic.

Taylor and Francis.  (2020).  COVID-19: Novel coronavirus content to free access.  Retrieved from https://taylorandfrancis.com/coronavirus/.

Yorio, K.  (2020).  A crisis: as in school closures due to coronavirus-justifies fair use, says librarians.  School Library Journal.  Retrieved from https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=librarians-address-copyright-concerns-argue-fair-use-applies-amid-academic-closures-coronavirus-covid19.  

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