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Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries

Code of Best Practices

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Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries

January 2012


  • Association of Research Libraries

  • Center for Social Media, School of Communication, American University

  • Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, Washington College of Law, American University


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The mission of academic and research librarians is to enable teaching, learning, and research.1 Along with serving current faculty, researchers, and students (especially graduate students), these librarians also serve the general public, to whom academic and research libraries are often open. Finally, academic and research librarians are committed to faculty, researchers, and students of the future, who depend on the responsible collection, curation, and preservation of materials over time.

Copyright law affects the work of academic and research librarians pervasively and in complex ways, because the great bulk of these librarians’ work deals with accessing, storing, exhibiting, or providing access to copyrighted material. The rights of copyright holders create incentives for the publication of important work that forms the core of library collections, while at the same time constraining academic and research librarians in the exercise of their mission. Similarly, limitations on and exceptions to copyright rights enable academic and research librarians to use copyrighted materials in important ways, but impose limits and responsibilities of their own.

In addition to specific exceptions for libraries and educators, academic and research librarians use the important general exemption of fair use to accomplish their mission. Fair use is the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment under some circumstances, especially when the cultural or social benefits of the use are predominant. It is a general right that applies even—and especially— in situations where the law provides no specific statutory authorization for the use in question. Consequently, the fair use doctrine is described only generally in the law, and it is not tailored to the mission of any particular community. Ultimately, determining whether any use is likely to be considered “fair” requires a thoughtful evaluation of the facts, the law, and the norms of the relevant community.

1. This code was developed by and for academic and research librarians. While some of the ideas and principles in the code may be helpful to librarians in other contexts, any reference to “librarians” in this document refers to academic and research librarians, not to all librarians.

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