Just use it: Change in UC Berkeley Library permissions policy lowers barriers for researchers

San Francisco City Hall in 1906 after the earthquake
San Francisco City Hall was photographed in 1906, after the earthquake and subsequent fire that destroyed large swaths of the city. This stereograph image, and other public domain materials held by the UC Berkeley Library, will no longer require permission from the Library to be republished by researchers. Researchers can also now make fair uses of copyright-protected materials without having to seek Library permission or pay fees. (Clinton Johnson; UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

Not long ago, if researchers wanted to publish excerpts or images from the UC Berkeley Library’s collections in their books or articles, they were confronted with a patchwork of policies — a hard-to-navigate web of fees and permissions that shifted depending on which library on campus held the materials.

Not anymore.

Driven in part by a desire to track the use of their collections, for decades, many museums, archives, and libraries — including the UC Berkeley Library — have required researchers get their approval and, sometimes, pay for permission to include excerpts or images in their scholarship. With the aim of fostering a more researcher-friendly environment, a progressive new policy across all of UC Berkeley’s libraries does away with these hurdles, making it easier for scholars to use a trove of Library materials in their publications.

“This is a broad-minded win for researchers,” said Rachael Samberg, who leads UC Berkeley’s Office of Scholarly Communication Services, which developed the policy with The Bancroft Library. “We have vast collections. We are taking to heart the Library’s mission of lowering barriers.”

Why the policy change? The Library aims to increase access to online resources by taking a more open stance that supports the broadest possible use of its collections — a boon to researchers.

While libraries may hold items in their collections, they do not always hold copyright over those items. If a library (or university) does not hold copyright over an item, requiring that researchers ask the library’s permission to use images or excerpt from it in a publication is a common but unnecessary step. Plus, in many cases, the researchers’ inclusion of the material would fall within what is considered fair use under copyright law, meaning they would not need permission from a copyright holder anyway.

For public domain materials, it’s an even easier call: Since no one has copyright claim to works in the public domain, permission — from anyone — to reuse public domain materials is not needed.

The new, unified policy is designed to take all of that into account — and, in doing so, lowers barriers, promotes the public domain, and supports researchers’ fair use rights under the law.

“(The new policy) is a direct reflection of our goals and values to advance knowledge and support research, teaching, and learning,” said Mary Elings, assistant director and head of technical services at Bancroft, who played a leading role in developing the policy.

For example, anyone wishing to republish public domain images or make fair uses of materials that the UC Berkeley Library has placed on Calisphere or the Online Archive of California — from a photo of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir overlooking Yosemite Valley to an image of City Hall in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — can do so without needing permission from the Library.

In fact, from now on, the only time the Library’s permission is ever needed for republishing portions of materials in its collections is when the UC Regents hold the copyright and the researcher’s intended republication goes beyond what would be considered fair use. (If your publication exceeds fair use and the UC Regents are not the copyright holders, you would still need to ask the copyright holder for permission.) A quick note: If you see online descriptive text — on, say, Calisphere — asking you to contact the Library for permission to publish the image, even if your use is fair, don’t worry. Although the new policy is in effect now, it may take some time for metadata for online items to reflect the new policy.

And while the new policy ends permissions fees for many uses, it doesn’t affect charges for services such as duplicating or digitizing materials, or for providing high-resolution digital copies. But removing the fees to make fair uses or publish public domain items from Library materials will end up helping many researchers, said Michael Lange, copyright and information policy specialist in the Library’s Office of Scholarly Communication Services.

“It can remove a huge financial burden for patrons,” Lange said.

For University Librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, the policy furthers the Library’s mission to make information resources open to all and comes at a crucial time, when the scholarly publishing model is tipping toward open access.

“At the Library, we’re in the information-sharing business,” he said. “We want to make it easier, not harder, to use knowledge resources to better the world. This policy does just that.”

The UC Berkeley Library is not the first to change course on its permissions practices. But particularly for a large research organization, it is ahead of the curve in implementing a policy with such expansive scope — that is, across all of its libraries, beyond special collections — Samberg said.

“What we hope coming out of this is that other university libraries and special collections follow the kind of path we’re taking,” Samberg said. “We hope this sets a positive trend.”