WNYLRC’s Ask the Lawyer service is new, but already getting plenty of use. Every so often, we’ll be posting questions received (with no identifying information from the sender) and our lawyer’s response, for everyone to learn from.
We are shifting away from VHS here on this campus (along with everywhere else), and have a question from an instructor about transferring a VHS tape to DVD. She’s not able to get the tape on DVD or streaming, but knows that it’s under copyright. Are there any loopholes to allow for making a digital backup of a VHS tape because VHS is an obsolete medium? Does going through a good-faith effort to find a digital version give some protection or leniency? Should we encourage the instructor to contact PBS or the show’s producers to obtain copyright clearance for making a digital copy?
WNYLRC Attorney’s Response
We’ll start out with the best advice: unless you stand on the legal high ground of a disability accommodation or a crumbling single copy unavailable in the original medium, when it comes to creating a new format of a work, written permission from the copyright owner is always best. That is the gold standard. If you have permission, the blood, sweat, and tears (or stress, more likely) of a Fair Use analysis are not needed.
This scenario does not occupy any legal high ground. For a library in this position—dealing with the increasing rarity of VHS players—there is great guidance out there from the Association of Research Libraries’ “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use”: Here is what the code has to say on this issue…
Even when libraries retain the originals of preserved items, digital surrogates can spare the original items the wear and tear that access necessarily inflicts. Section 108 of the Copyright Act authorizes some preservation activities, but does not address some of today’s most pressing needs…[including] the transfer to new formats of materials whose original formats (such as VHS magnetic tape) are not yet obsolete (as the term is narrowly defined in section 108(c)) but have become increasingly difficult for contemporary users to consult.
Case law also acknowledges this VHS problem, but gives no relief: “Fair use has never been held to be a guarantee of access to copyrighted material in order to copy it by the fair user’s preferred technique or in the format of the original.” (University Studios et al v. Corley, U.S. Court of Appeal 2nd Circuit, 2001). This case is 15 years old, which means a lot has happened in the world of technology, but is still good law.
So the answer is, for now, unless you are making a disability accommodation, or faced with a crumbling copy, there is no iron-clad loophole or clear precedent to allow the proposed conversion to be a “fair use.”
That said, if you have a deteriorating copy, a good-faith effort to re-purchase it in the original medium will certainly contribute to a fair use defense if you duplicate it to preserve this resource.
To help both you and your institution show that you have gone through this exercise, when you address such questions, I advise that you compose short emails to yourself, documenting the question, process, and conclusion. A simple:
“Instructor stopped by today and asked if we could convert VHS in the collection to DVD for ease of access. I let her know we’ll try to purchase a copy on DVD or seek permission of the copyright holder to make a copy on DVD.”
“Instructor stopped by today and asked if we could convert VHS to a format that would allow Deaf student to view closed-captioned version; we are arranging conversion solely to allow reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”
“Instructor pointed out that VHS tape in collection was not working right. [Co-worker] and I verified the condition. As best practices state it is fair use to make digital copies of collection items that are likely to deteriorate, or that exist only in difficult-to-access formats, for purposes of preservation, and to make those copies available as surrogates for fragile or otherwise inaccessible materials, the library will create a back-up copy, UNLESS a fully equivalent digital copy is commercially available at a reasonable cost. We will of course not provide access to or circulate original and preservation copies simultaneously.”
This July, various news outlets reported that the world’s last manufacturer of VCR’s has cease production. Please check back on this issue; we’ll update this entry in the FAQ when we have better guidance, which should be coming soon. Congress is working on new guidelines, and was recently told by the Register of Copyrights, Susan Pallante: “In its current state, Section 108 is replete with references to analog works and fails to address the ways in which libraries really function in the digital era, including the copies they must make to properly preserve a work and the manner in which they share or seek to share works with other libraries.”