What are copyright limitations and exceptions?

Copyright limitations and exceptions balance the need to protect creators with the users need to access information. Legal protection in form of an exclusive right is granted to the creator to control production and use of the work by others, for example, copying, distribution, translation, public performance and broadcasting. The exclusive right is limited to certain limitations and exceptions to enable access and preservation of copyrighted works.

Importance for libraries

WIPO study shows that libraries work under a patchwork of provisions that differ in scope and effect from country to country. 21 countries worldwide have no specific copyright exception for libraries; 27 countries have only a general exception. The provisions increasingly fail to address the legal and policy challenges of the global digital environment. Current national and international systems of copyright limitations and exceptions for libraries have not been updated for the digital environment, hindering in particular cross-border activities, such as distance learning, digitisation projects by libraries and exchange of material in accessible formats for people with disabilities. 

Benefit for society

Limitations and exceptions benefit society at a large as they safeguard fundamental individual user rights, including freedom of access to information and freedom of expression as required in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. They also promote commerce, competition and innovation by fostering the dissemination of knowledge. Finally, they enable the dissemination of knowledge and information by including provisions for libraries, people with disabilities and educators for teaching and research. In many developing and least developed countries, the library is the only source of information for those engaged in educational or training programmes. 

Towards copyright balance

Legislators and policy makers currently discuss limitations and exceptions at an international level. Libraries advocate for a binding instrument that incorporates the following principles:

  • Preservation: A library should be permitted to make copies in its collections for purposes of preservation.
  • Legal deposit: Legal deposit laws should be broadened to include works published in all formats and to allow for preservation of those works.
  • Interlibrary loan and document supply: Libraries should be able to supply documents to the user irrespective of the format and the means of communication.
  • Education and classroom teaching: It should be permitted for works to be made available in support of classroom teaching or distance education in a manner that does not unreasonably prejudice the rights holder. A library should be permitted to make copies of a work in support of classroom teaching.
  • Reproduction for research or private purposes: Copying individual items for or by individual users should be permitted for research and study and for other private purposes.
  • Provision for persons with disabilities: A library should be permitted to convert material from one format to another to make it accessible to persons with disabilities. To avoid costly duplication of alternative format production, cross-border transfer should be permitted.
  • General free use exceptions applicable to libraries: A general free use exception consistent with fair practice helps ensure the effective delivery of library services.
  • Orphan works: An exception is needed to resolve the problem of orphan works, where the rights holder cannot be identified or located.
  • Copyright term: Consistent with the Berne Convention, the term of copyright for literary works should not exceed the life of the author plus 50 years.
  • Technological Protection Measures that prevent lawful uses: It should be permitted for libraries and their users to circumvent a technological protection measure for the purpose of making a non-infringing use of a work.
  • Contracts and statutory exceptions: Contracts should not be permitted to override limitations and exceptions. The goals and policies providing for exceptions are important statements of national and international principle and should not be varied by contract.
  • Limitation on liability: There should be a limitation on liability for libraries and library staff who act in good faith, believing or having reasonable grounds to believe, that they have acted in accordance with copyright law.

Last update: 26 February 2013