UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Do We Want Radical Law-Breaking Librarians?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 21 Oct 2013

Defending Professionals Which Break the Law in the Public Interest

BBC News ItemOn Friday the BBC News published a story which described how “UK’s top prosecutor defends journalists who break law in public interest“. The story was about the role of journalists in making information publicly available. Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions insisted that it “would be very unhealthy if you had a situation where a journalist felt that they needed to go to their lawyer before they pursued any lead or asked any question“.

As today marks the start of Open Access Week 2013 it is appropriate to ask this question of those working in librarians. Should we encourage radical law-breaking librarians who are willing to break the law or challenges established practices in making information available?

This was an issues address recently at the Radical Library Camp event held in Bradford on 28 September 2013. The following proposal was submitted:

Professional ethics: copyright is broken, so why am I enforcing it?

Copyright law is broken. By criminalising citizens and creators in order to protect the profits of corporations, it harms the people that it should be empowering. Therefore I see it as an ethical imperative to break and/or subvert it; civil disobedience is a necessary part of a functioning democracy.

It is part of my job in a library to uphold and enforce copyright law.

Professional ethics are in conflict here: on the one hand, I have a duty to my employer and society to act in accordance with the law; on the other hand, when that law is wrong, it is unethical to force people to comply with it.

How can this be resolved? I’m not sure that the professional ethics espoused by our current professional organisation, CILIP, are enough to negotiate dilemmas like this. What does this mean? Do we need a new, more agile ethical approach that can deal with contemporary information ethics? And if so, can we find this within existing professional frameworks or do we need a new professional body?

Although I don’t know if the proposal was discussed I felt it would be worth revisiting this topic, in part due to a wish to raise the profile of activities which are taking place during Open Access Week but also as a follow-up to related discussions which took place last week at the ILI 2013 conference.

As I mentioned in a summary of a workshop on Future Technologies and Their Applications Workshop Tony Hirst’s story based on his observation that the rules and regulations for the University of Cambridge Library states that “Overcoats, raincoats, and other kinds of outdoor clothing, umbrellas, bags, cases, cameras, photocopying devices, and similar personal belongings shall normally be deposited in the locker-room adjacent to the entrance hall during each visit to the Library” (my emphasis) generated some debate.  Since most mobile phones these days will have cameras and can be used for scanning/photocopying they would appear to be banned from being brought into the library. This may no longer be the case (Tony’s post was published back in December 2009). But the general issue is still valid: “should libraries ban devices which have the capability of copyright infringement from being brought into the library?” I think libraries would be foolish if they tried to ban mobile phones from being brought into libraries; a more reasonable response to problems which mobile phones could cause in libraries would be to require that they are set to silent mode.

But to pose the question in a different way: “should libraries provide training and support for their users to help them maximise the potential of smartphones?” Such training might include use of library-specific applications (QR codes perhaps). But what of use of mobile applications which make use of a smart phone’s camera and OCR capabilities which could be used for copyright infringement?

Are any libraries running courses or providing advice and support in areas which may have the potential for copyright infringement? And in what other areas may we wish to encourage librarians, as journalists may be encouraged to do in some circumstances, to break the law in the public interest or for the benefit of society in general?

8 Responses to “Do We Want Radical Law-Breaking Librarians?”

  1. Items being desperately sought after by users which we don’t have: you find a dubious-looking PDF copy on the open web in the course of trying to track it down. Do you…
    a) Not tell the user you found it and say it isn’t available unless they wish to pay for an inter-library loan
    b) Suggest that IF they were to look in a certain place, they may find it there but they would need to judge whether it was appropriate to use or not
    c) Give them the link to it
    This is a frequent dilemma!

  2. Charles Oppenheim said

    Excellent article. One could extend it to the Open Access arena. Should University and other library staff be encouraging researchers to place copies of outputs into an Open Access repository when the output in question is subject to an embargo or is placed behind a paywall subscription based journal?

    My own view, for what it is worth, is that discreet encouragement/turning a blind eye to all the ideas mentioned is good, but overt, public encouragement could well get the librarian and/or their employer in legal trouble, so should only be done as part of a mass effort.

  3. Interesting points Brian. In the examples that you give, there are two types of law breaking I think. 1 is breaking the law of the land, which may either be a civil or criminal act, and the other is breaking a request or restriction (not to use a mobile as a camera). Both the copyright law and the mobile phone law do need to be changed to reflect modern thinking, and this can be done either by Parliament and politicians or by university staff, the latter more easily and quickly than the former.

    However – when it comes to ethics, are they personal ethics, or the ethics of a professional body? I think that it has to be the latter, or a librarian with a particular moral and ethical belief (religious or political) may choose not to help a library user, claiming a conflict. If we sign up to an ethical code however, we put aside our own feelings in respect of our professional calling. So to say ‘I’m going to break copyright law because I don’t think it’s morally correct’ is no different to someone else saying ‘I’m not going to find material that promotes (say) a view of creationism’. We cannot pick and choose which morals, ethics and laws we uphold.

    If we choose to break a law, then why not break another? If it’s ok to break copyright law (however broken it may seem to us), why is it then not ok to break another law – however broken that one may seem to us? How can we justify to a library member ‘I’m going to break this law on copyright to get you the information you want because I don’t agree with it, but I’m not going to let you look at pornography because I don’t agree with it, even if you do’?

    We have to have a level of consistency in our approach, and for our own safety – if for no other reason – I think it’s dubious to use our own moral or ethical code to replace that of a code from a professional association, or on a broader stage, that of a society, which democratically elects politicians to create and maintain laws for us – however ridiculous they may appear.

  4. Hi Phil
    Thanks for the comment.

    I think there is a need to go beyond the binary perception of whether actions infringe the law or requests/instructions from an organisation. There are clearly questions of interpretation (e.g. does the need to avoid copyright infringement mean that my slides can’t contain a screen image of a Web page, which may be infringing the copyright of the browser vendor and the Web page owner?). There is also the question of willingness to accept risks – I suspect people who took photos of speakers at ILI and shared them on Flickr were aware of the privacy implications of what they were doing but felt that greater good could be achieved by posting the tweets. I know that was a decision I made.

    Such decisions are probably best left to the individual to make. And I feel that a professional body which advised/instructed its members to now post images of people without their express permission would fall into disrepute.

    It should also be remembered that many information professionals will not be members of professional bodies.

    For me the need is to change the culture, which is more willing to take risks in areas for which the benefits of taking the risks are becoming more widely accepted.

    It’s also worth remembering the actions of the IT system administrators in the mid 1990s who installed institutional cahces even though, at the time, there were those who argued that since caches infringed copyright, installing a cache system within the organisation would be illegal.There was no professional body of systems administrators (with the possible exception of the BCS) – rather, they took the decisions themselves, informed by broad agreement across the sector, which was informed by similar decisions being made in other sectors and programmers who were developing open source caching systems and vendors who were marketing commercial cache servers.

    Let’s raise our glasses to the system administrators who were prepared to take risks in challenging the technical flaws inherent in treating caching as copyright infringement. BTW back in 1999 I sent a message to the website-info-mgt JISCMail list in which I commented:
    I agree with you about the stupidity of the proposed EU ban on caching (from what I read, Nana Mouskouri (?) following lobbying from groups such as the Spice Girls and The Corrs succeeded in getting a resolution passed which would make caching services illegal).

    That message was a response to a discussion about the legality of linking to public web pages without permission. I recall one organisation which advised that you should never provide a link to a Web site outside your organisation unless you have been given permission to do so until the law on this matter had been clarified. It was suggested that a link to the organisation’s home page would have to suffice! Perhaps we should also raise a glass to Web page authors who ignored such suggestions!

  5. Note further to this discussion I have just come across a newsletter which provides a summary of talks given at the NASIG 2014 conference (PDF format). A report on a talk on “Copyright in a Digital Age: Conflict, Risk, and Reward” given by Kevin Smith, Duke University describes how “[Smith] argued that a fear of copyright violation should not dictate a library’s actions. Instead, librarians should evaluate their plans against the knowledge they do have about copyright law to make reasonable decisions about how to proceed” and went on to say “There is not a definitive method for copyright holders and users to determine if their actions are violating copyright law. If libraries avoid certain actions because they are unclear whether it breaks copyright law, they run the risk of overly censoring themselves“. Kevin Smith also highlighted the dangers of conservative approaches: the possibility of institutions not offering new services for fear of violating copyright may be a bigger threat to libraries than the possibility of being on the wrong side of a copyright infringement case“.

    I was pleased to note that the suggestion that “When a library wants to pursue an activity that could possibly violate copyright law, librarians should apply a risk and reward analysis of doing or not doing the activity. Simply not doing activities that could possibly violate copyright law is not a viable option considering the library would risk bypassing the rewards of the new activities” reflected the approaches described my myself and Charles Oppenheim in a paper on “Empowering Users and Institutions: A Risks and Opportunities Framework for Exploiting the Social Web“. It’s not just about risks, it’s about opportunities and the risks associated with the missed opportunities.

  6. […] Defending Professionals Which Break the Law in the Public Interest On Friday the BBC News published a story which described how “UK’s top prosecutor defends journalists who break law in public interest“.  […]

  7. […] Do We Want Radical Law-Breaking Librarians? […]

  8. […] over  year ago I asked “Do We Want Radical Law-Breaking Librarians?” The background to the post was a BBC News article which described how “UK’s top […]

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