Don’s Conference Notes- Owning, Licensing, and Sharing Digital Content: A NISO Virtual Conference

by | Feb 16, 2021 | 0 comments


By Donald T. Hawkins (Freelance Editor and Conference Blogger)

The National Information Standards Organization (NISO) held this virtual conference on January 21, 2021 to examine issues affecting digital content. 

Todd Carpenter

In his introduction, Todd Carpenter, NISO Executive Director, noted that when libraries obtained content, limited copying was acceptable in certain controlled circumstances, but now many other considerations must be considered because the environment has changed. Traditional business models are showing strain. Shipping copies of books around the world no longer makes sense; contracts are beginning to govern sharing of digital resources; and the COVID pandemic has affected all players in the information industry—users, libraries, and publishers.

Sharing Digital Content

Nancy Sims, Copyright Program Librarian, University of Minnesota, began by posing 2 questions for consideration by the audience: (1) Where do you stand on altering the current landscape? and (2) What does copyright law say about sharing our materials? Then, she discussed 3 related issues:

  • Fair use, which is governed by Sections 108 and 109 of the copyright law, is complicated but manageable. Copyright law says that we can share materials in many different circumstances. Section 108 gives libraries the right to have unsupervised copying machines, make copies for users, and use interlibrary loan. Section 109 has a display provision: if you own a work, you can lend, copy, sell, and display it.
  • Contracts can prohibit us from doing things that the law might permit, but they also can allow us to do things that the law prohibits. It is important to read contracts and then negotiate them. Some materials may have poor or difficult license terms, and we should avoid buying them, but sometimes there is no alternative.
  • Strategy: How do we approach altering the current landscape? It is ethical to push on the boundaries of copyright law when it is for the benefit of our users or the general public, which requires lots of relationship and risk management. We need to be sure to put our users, organizations, and the public interest ahead of our private interests.

Perpetual Access To Books

Brian O’Leary, Executive Director, Book Industry Study Group, said that although books have existed for 500 years, in the last 2 decades they have evolved rapidly from seldom digitized physical objects to digital offerings and then to mainly digital objects that are occasionally printed. Former print characteristics were well understood: only as many copies as were owned could be lent; retrieving content required physical proximity; and highly used titles wore out which requires the purchase of replacement copies.  Publishers used prices to maintain some scarcity, and there were few formal licenses so buying the book conferred perpetual access.

 Digital access to books is still a work in process: systems have been developed to limit lending; retrieving content is less dependent on physical proximity; and copies do not wear out. Digital books and perpetual access are growing more complex and involve licenses or contracts, which are often managed by publishers or other third parties. The result is a growing tension between publisher obligations and user expectations; for example, e-books may be limited by territorial restrictions, which can create problems for users and raise challenges such as managing the transition from sales to rights and knowing the terms of the agreements.

Consortial Approaches

Jill Morris, Executive Director, Partnership for Academic Library Collaboration and Innovation (formerly the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium, Inc., PALCI), noted that our sharing ecosystem has dramatically changed over the past several years as libraries have moved to digital collections and have also been affected by the COVID pandemic. 

PALCI serves 71 academic and research institutions and focuses on resource sharing, collaborative collections, community and collaborative infrastructure, and innovation support. Its major challenges are how we think about licensing, etc. and support different types of access.  The culture of sharing has evolved over time from resource sharing (mostly print) to collaborative licensing and collections strategies with a goal to creating a future healthy sharing ecosystem.

At a PALCI Collections Summit in 2018, these value statements were derived:

  • Trust is the foundation of collaboration and arriving at the best interests of the consortium.
  • Honoring and leveraging the diversity of the members of the consortium.
  • Engaging and investing collectively in sharing of resources of all types for the deepest possible collaboration.
  • Innovating and creating for the greatest good and sharing risks.

The result of the values statement was a PALCI e-books strategy (see the PALCI website at for details).

Controlled Digital Lending (CDL)

Erin Weiler and Joan Lindsay, librarians at Michigan State University (MSU), described their implementation of CDL. The underlying reason for CDL was the COVID pandemic, which closed the libraries and meant that course reserves, affordable textbooks, and closed reference materials were no longer accessible by students.  

When the decision was made to adopt CDL, meetings were held with library stakeholders, and references on CDL were consulted. The requirements for CDL were that a physical copy of each item had to be owned by the library for each digital copy to be circulated, the copy had to be isolated from the collection so that it could not be checked out, and copying, downloading, or printing of the digital copy was not permitted. 

No additional staff were hired for the CDL operations; the process was a team effort. Existing resources were used: Microsoft SharePoint sent users a link to access the desired materials, and Microsoft Power Automate restricted the items due for check-in. In the catalog, a GetIt! button generates a message informing users about CDL and its restrictions, then sends the circulation staff an e-mail notification to check the item out to the user and changes its status in the catalog to “checked out”. The document is then e-mailed to the user.

The CDL program was very successful, and students were happy. It was used in 163 different courses; undergraduates made 827 checkouts (91% of the total CDL checkouts). However, there continue to be some challenges: the process is very time consuming and labor intensive—it takes a long time to scan an entire book. Users do not have instant access to materials and are not notified when they become available for lending. For the immediate future, the existing CDL process will be continued, but future plans are to find another system that does not require so much manual effort.

The Internet Archive (IA) and Digital Content

Brewster Kahle, IA Founder and Librarian, discussed issues relating to the future of libraries, and following his presentation participated in an interview with Todd Carpenter. 

The IA began a CDL program because they wanted to contribute to libraries. CDL allows the education of people in rural areas because they can read materials without needing to be in a city. We want to have a global brain, but our brain is presently diseased: it is full of lies and misinformation, runs ads constantly, and often behaves like it has Alzheimer’s disease. What have we done to people trying to make important decisions?

We need to do things differently. For example, the IA fixed 11 million broken links in Wikipedia and made them active. We must be able to access things beyond their normal lifetime. If we can’t make published material available to readers, we are not serving them. Remember the value of libraries; they buy things, lend them out, and serve readers. Going forward, the only way we will have libraries is with digital ownership, and are not just a service department.  We need gains with many winners—lots of publishers, researchers, and readers who don’t need to ask permission from anybody to access the content.


Todd: In a virtual environment there may be no opportunity for kids. School districts may not have rights to many materials, nor can they purchase them.  How can we solve this problem?

Brewster: We need to stand up and do something. At the beginning of the pandemic, the IA established a National Emergency Library for 6 weeks and discovered that people tended to be in and out of books very quickly, so the loan period was set to 1 hour. Our education system is in disarray because of publisher policies. The level of real need is small. We are all homeschoolers now! Can libraries make a huge difference? Absolutely! Let’s have conversations rather than throwing lawyers at each other.

Todd: We see a lot of very bad licensing by publishers, especially for the library market. Why is the library community giving away rights that they already have?

Brewster: There have always been conflicts, but libraries and publishers have worked together. We buy books and scan them where we must, which gives us the same rights as with a physical book. Licenses are static documents that tend to stick around forever. Times change; who would have thought of machine learning or Hathi Trust 20 or more years ago? 

Todd: In the music industry, we had to buy the music over and over again as formats changed. Are there ways to build an infrastructure to make this an easier process?

Brewster: Yes. Why don’t we make it easier for publishers to distribute their books in better ways? If we need more copies of a book, just buy them! Let’s make many winners. 

Todd: If somebody has scanned something, why are we duplicating that effort?

Brewster: We have the Open Libraries program, but we need to work together and coordinate our actions more efficiently. Publishers and libraries are dependent on each other. 

Todd: Where would leadership come from?

Brewster: Let’s make things easy and try to exploit the different parts of the system. If publishers starve the libraries, funding for libraries will disappear. We should do whatever we can to adapt to the new world. 

Donald T. Hawkins is an information industry freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. In addition to blogging and writing about conferences for Against the Grain, he blogs the Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian conferences for Information Today, Inc. (ITI) and maintains the Conference Calendar on the ITI website ( He is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, (Information Today, 2013) and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits (Information Today, 2016). He holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley and has worked in the online information industry for over 50 years.


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