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Copyright and Cultural Institutions An interview with Peter B. Hirtle

Minow: What sparked you to write this book?

Hirtle: I used to be Director of the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections, where I led a number of library and museum digitization projects. With all of the projects, much of my time was spent worrying about what was legal and/or acceptable for us to do. Based on my experiences and what I learned about copyright, I started offering workshops on copyright and digitization. When I read Hudson and Kenyon’s Australian manual on the topic, I realized that this was exactly the sort of information that I wished I had at my fingertips when I started out. Their manual was written to assist understanding and compliance with copyright law. It addresses the basics of copyright law, the exclusive rights of the copyright owner, and the major exemptions used by cultural heritage institutions. I realized that an American version would be of great use, and fortunately they agreed that we could collaborate on such a volume.

Minow: If you could condense your book to one paragraph, what would it say?

Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums Hirtle: The development of new digital technologies has led to fundamental changes in the ways that cultural institutions fulfill their public missions of access, preservation, research, and education. Many institutions are developing publicly accessible Web sites that allow users to visit online exhibitions, search collection databases, access images of collection items, and in some cases create their own digital content. Digitization, however, also raises the possibility of copyright infringement. It is imperative, therefore, that staff in libraries, archives, and museums understand fundamental copyright principles and how institutional procedures can be affected by the law. Copyright and Cultural Institutions was written to further understanding and compliance with copyright law.

Minow: What were the challenges or surprises you found when writing it?

Hirtle: I knew that very few of the things that cultural institutions want to do with new technologies are explicitly authorized in copyright law. What I didn’t realize is how many non-digital practices are similarly unauthorized. Cultural institutions have unknowingly engaged in a string of behaviors that in theory place them at some risk. This has not been a problem, however, because very, very few institutions have ever been sued – and many of the activities that they have undertaken may be perfectly legal, even if they are not explicitly recognized in the law. These cultural institutions have been engaged in a kind of intuitive risk analysis, and have assumed (correctly) that their risks are low. I hope the book will help institutions engage in an informed risk analysis that leads them to conclude that the public interest, as well as the many protections the law affords them, warrants providing greater access to their collections.

Minow: When will it be available?

Hirtle: Now! The volume is available for free download from SSRN and Cornell University Library’s eCommons. In addition, print copies are available for sale from We are hoping that enough individuals and institutions will purchase the print copy that we can recover the out-of-pocket production expenses and justify making a copy available for free on the web.

* Peter B. Hirtle is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Cornell University Library and member of the Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Advisory Board.

Mary Minow is Executive Editor of the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Website.