NLM Celebrates Fair Use

A skeleton key hovers near a keyhole

Guest post by NLM Associate Fellow Gabrielle Barr and NLM Copyright Group co-chairs Christie Moffatt and Rebecca Goodwin.

It’s Fair Use Week 2018, an annual event coordinated by the Association for Research Libraries (ARL) to celebrate the opportunities of fair use, including the many ways it supports biomedical research and the work we do at here at NLM.

Fair use is a legal doctrine that asserts the right to use materials under copyright in a limited manner without the copyright holder first granting permission. In practice, fair use is a balance between the rights of copyright holders and the rights of researchers, authors, educators, students, artists, and others, as we work as a society to promote science, education, and the arts.

Section 107 of the US Copyright Act provides the details of fair use, but the University of Virginia Library nicely summed it up in only seven words: “Use fairly. Not too much. Have reasons.”

Infographic: Fair Use Promotes the Creation of New Knowledge
Click image to view full infographic.

Libraries regularly champion fair use because of the way it supports research and education, but also because it enables libraries to fulfill their primary mission of providing and preserving information.

The same holds true here at NLM.

NLM’s fair use policies, based on ARL’s best practices, support access to library resources, encourage teaching and learning, allow preserving at-risk materials and collecting web-based content for future scholarship, and facilitate new modes of computational research and data-mining.

From digitizing content to building institutional repositories to creating physical and digital exhibitions, NLM applies fair use in a variety of ways. We maintain the NLM Digital Collections to provide access to historical books, photographs, videos, manuscripts, and maps. We collect web-based “born digital” content documenting major global health events such as the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. We digitize films for the History of Medicine Division’s (HMD) collection of Medical Movies on the Web, showcase materials in physical and online exhibitions, and promote our collections via blogs such as HMD’s Circulating Now. We incorporate copyrighted content into online courses and tutorials for NLM systems such as MEDLINE®, PubMed®, the Unified Medical Language System®, and the Value Set Authority Center. And we include stubs of proprietary clinical assessment instruments in the NIH Common Data Elements Repository to help researchers standardize clinical data.

Now NLM is considering how fair use can accommodate our evolving needs in the technology-rich and data-driven future.

The Library strongly supports the FAIR Data Principles, which affirm that data and other digital objects representing the products and processes of modern biomedical science are Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable (FAIR). And we rely increasingly on algorithms, APIs, computer software, searchable databases, and search engines that enable data mining for intellectual purposes.

While fair use can ensure access to and use of these tools and data, recent federal court decisions indicate the intersection of copyright law with APIs and computer software remain part of the fair use frontier. Each new ruling has the potential to redefine current practice and requirements.

In this time of shifting sand, it’s no surprise that ARL’s forthcoming Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Software Preservation (expected this fall) involves extensive research and interviews with software preservation experts and other stakeholders. Their ability to articulate the complex issues related to software and fair use could significantly impact libraries’ future work preserving today’s digital record.

In the meantime, NLM is forging ahead, applying fair use to advance medical education, biomedical research and discovery, and data-powered health.

We’d love to hear from other institutions on how you employ fair use and the steps you take to balance the rights of copyright holders with those of researchers, educators, and artists. Comment below or drop a note to the NLM Copyright Group.

casual headshot of Gabrielle Barr

Gabrielle Barr, MSI, is an NLM Associate Fellow. Before coming to NLM, she worked in the special collections of Norfolk Public Library and as a project assistant for the Health Sciences Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her master of science in information and a certificate in science, technology, and society from the University of Michigan in 2015.


casual headshot of Christie Moffatt

Christie Moffatt, MLS, serves as co-chair of the NLM Copyright Group, manager of the Digital Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division, and chair of the NLM Web Collecting and Archiving Working Group. She earned her master’s degree in library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a concentration in archives and manuscripts.


headshot of Rebecca Goodwin

Rebecca Goodwin, JD, serves as co-chair of the NLM Copyright Group and as a data science specialist in the Office of Health Information Programs Development. Previously, she served as special assistant to the director of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications. She came to NIH in 2007 as a Presidential Management Fellow after earning her JD from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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