“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum. The column below originally appeared in the September/October 2011 issue and is reprinted here with permission.
Q: Recently, I created a presentation on “Topic X” for a law library conference. Not long after that, a law librarian friend, who lives in another state, called me. She had just attended her own regional conference and heard a session on “Topic X” given by my coworker. My friend knew that I had recently prepared materials and lectured on “Topic X” and had expected to see or hear my name referenced, but did not. I asked my co-worker about it, and she readily admitted that she had used my slides and handouts. I told her that I would have gladly consented to her using my materials but that I was disappointed that she hadn’t asked to do so or acknowledged my work. She responded that she didn’t need my permission. She claimed that as I had created the materials while at work, they didn’t belong to me. Is she right? I’m hurt and feel as if I can’t trust her.
A: I understand why you’re hurt and why you can’t trust your co-worker. However, whether she’s correct about ownership is another issue. Librarians, as a group, have been very generous, especially to one another. I’ve worked in academic and private law firm libraries, and my colleagues and I have swapped flash drives and PowerPoint slides as if we were trading baseball cards or Beanie Babies. Many of us, myself included, have been naïve and a little behind the times when it comes to educating ourselves regarding ownership. The presumption is that a creator holds the copyright, whether the copyright symbol is evident on the work or not. Therefore, at a minimum, your co-worker should have asked your permission to use your materials.
This presumption of ownership, however, could be rebutted by the particular policies that are in place at your institution. For example, academic institutions should have a copyright /intellectual policy addressing academic freedom and “works for hire.” The Copyright Act defines the latter as works created by individuals within the scope of their employment. Law firms may have similar policies in place, as well as disclosure policies, which govern the dissemination of confidential information, and disclaimer policies, which are often found on the firm’s website and which address the information located on the website. Works created by court and government employees could, but may not be, considered to be in the public domain. The burden is on us as employees to make the inquiry. There should be someone at your library who could provide the answer.
If our libraries don’t have these protections in place, we need to lobby for them. Librarians are resourceful. We can locate sample policies by researching the topic, by searching the websites of colleges and law firms, or by contacting experts among AALL members. We don’t have to stop sharing our materials; we simply need to become more prudent in doing so. I have often turned to my colleagues when responding to questions in this column. I rely on their collective wisdom and generosity. I recently spoke with Angela Secrest, director/LRC support for Houston Community College, who reminded me that librarians are teachers. We not only teach individuals how to research and retrieve information but we also instruct people how to use that information ethically. We educate patrons on how to correctly cite resources and how to provide appropriate attribution for the works and ideas of others. We lead by example. To quote her, “We don’t swipe other people’s stuff.” What happened to you illustrates the collision of law and ethics. We need to continue to hold ourselves to a high ethical standard. If we don’t, how can we expect others to do so?