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Happy 100th birthday First Sale Doctrine!!

100 years ago today (June 1, 1908) the [w:First-sale doctrine] was established in the US Supreme Court case Bobbs-Merrill v. Straus, and became codified into the Copyright Act of 1976 (17 U.S.C. § 109). First sale doctrine — which allows the purchaser of a copyrighted work to sell or give away that work without permission once it has been obtained — is the pillar and copyright protection upon which libraries have been able to build their collections and services to their communities.

Ironically, today libraries find themselves in an untenable situation. The First Sale Doctrine continues to move toward the margins as more and more information goes digital. Much of this content is not protected by first sale because libraries license access from vendors. Perhaps that’s why Ross Dawson, on his extinction timeline, has libraries going extinct in 2019, a year before copyright itself. Or maybe Slate’s slideshow “borrowed time” is closer to being right when they describe the future of libraries as a “mutating role as urban hangout, meeting place, and arbiter of information, the public library seems far from spent.”

I’m hopeful about the future of libraries, but think that librarians need to be more conscious and proactive about digital content, to negotiate licenses with vendors that allow for perpetual access — if not actually being able to host digital content on their own servers — as well as libraries being able to share their content with other libraries (aka interlibrary loan) and “shelve” or repurpose their digital content in ways that serve their local communities. Only if digital content has the same first sale protection as paper content will libraries continue to serve their traditional (and critical) role as cultural repositories.

[Thanks for the heads-up Everybody’s Libraries!]

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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