Disney, Libraries, and Copyright

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with Copyright Law in the United States has probably heard of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, passed in 1998 largely due to the lobbying power of the Disney corporation. Anyone who has children, or is just a fan of the Disney oeuvre, is likewise aware of their “Disney Vault” system, wherein Disney releases one of their animated films on DVD for a limited time, and the withdraws it from retail sale for between 7 and 10 years.

The tension between copyright, libraries, and Disney’s Vault process is one that was brought to light for me in a series of tweets this past week from Gretchen Caserotti. She was struggling to replace films in their collection due to damage, loss, etc, and discovered that there are 22 Disney films that they can’t replace now due to Disney’s Vault. I hadn’t thought about this as a result of the Vault, and my first thought when the issue came up was Section 108 of the US Copyright Code…otherwise known as the Reproduction by Libraries and Archives section.

Librarians should all be familiar with Section 107, the Fair Use provision of US Copyright law. But I’m consistently surprised how few librarians know Section 108. It gives libraries specific abilities regarding copyright, and in regards to the Disney issue, I immediately thought of this section:

h) (1) For purposes of this section, during the last 20 years of any term of copyright of a published work, a library or archives, including a nonprofit educational institution that functions as such, may reproduce, distribute, display, or perform in facsimile or digital form a copy or phonorecord of such work, or portions thereof, for purposes of preservation, scholarship, or research, if such library or archives has first determined, on the basis of a reasonable investigation, that none of the conditions set forth in subparagraphs (A), (B), and (C) of paragraph (2) apply.
(2) No reproduction, distribution, display, or performance is authorized under this subsection if —
(A) the work is subject to normal commercial exploitation;
(B) a copy or phonorecord of the work can be obtained at a reasonable price; or
(C) the copyright owner or its agent provides notice pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Register of Copyrights that either of the conditions set forth in subparagraphs (A) and (B) applies.

There is also the section that allows for:

(c) The right of reproduction under this section applies to three copies or phonorecords of a published work duplicated solely for the purpose of replacement of a copy or phonorecord that is damaged, deteriorating, lost, or stolen, or if the existing format in which the work is stored has become obsolete, if —
(1) the library or archives has, after a reasonable effort, determined that an unused replacement cannot be obtained at a fair price; and
(2) any such copy or phonorecord that is reproduced in digital format is not made available to the public in that format outside the premises of the library or archives in lawful possession of such copy.

This section isn’t as useful, as (c)(2) prevents the circulation of copied DVDs, although it does appear to allow for patrons to view the DVD inside the library. And section (h) is limited to works in the last 20 years of their copyright term. The original Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, was published in 1928, and Wikipedia reports that it should fall into the public domain in 2023. This would mean that, roughly, Disney media published between 1928 and 1935 would be subject to this rule. That range does not, unfortunately, cover any Disney films, as Snow White was released in 1937, and was the first major motion picture put out by Disney. But it would mean that in just 2 more years, in 2012, that Snow White _should_ fall into this category.

So, copyright nerds and librarians: is it legal for libraries to back up their DVD purchases, in a situation where it is a known fact that they will not be able to re-purchase them when they are needed? Here’s a situation where a legal copy of a DVD is owned, it is damaged or stolen, and the legal owner wants to buy a replacement…but can’t. Shouldn’t it be legal for a library to do this? Does Fair Use (section 107) give a library the right to make a copy in this situation?


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