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Interlibrary Loan Guide: Copyright Issues and Limits

Describing the policies and procedures of Curry Library’s Interlibrary Loan (ILL) services, including MOBIUS and Prospector.

Legal Disclaimer

Note: Curry Library staff and student employees are unable to give legal advice. Nothing in this guide should be construed as legal advice.  If you need legal advice, you should contact an intellectual property attorney.

Under current U.S. copyright law and congressional interpretation and guidance of copyright law, libraries within the United States are able to legally request, share, and lend certain physical and digital objects for use by library users. This allowance is not unlimited, however, and there is a necessary balance in this between the rights of libraries to share resources and the rights of copyright holders (typically authors and/or publishers) to protect the intellectual and financial value of their right to copy their property. 

What Users Need to Know

Library users should be aware that the library must operate within the guidelines stipulated in copyright law. This may limit what kinds of resources the library is able to request from other institutions to lend to its users. That said, Interlibrary Loan is an invaluable and free resource that allows Curry Library users to access millions of physical and digital items. 

If there is an item you would like to try and obtain a copy of, please file a request using the steps outlined in this guide. If you are unsure about requesting an item, please contact the library directly. When there are copyright limits or issues that affect the status of a request, it will be the responsibility of Curry Library staff in maintaining adherence to copyright law and clearly communicating to users what is requestable through Interlibrary Loan and what is not.

For more information on commonly occurring copyright issues with Interlibrary Loan, please continue reading the section below.

Common Copyright Limits

First Sale Vs. Digital Renting

Whenever the library buys a physical copy of a work, the library owns and may do with that physical copy whatever it sees fit, including lending, selling or disposing of the copy. This principle is known as the first sale doctrine.

Typically, when the library buys a digital copy of a work, the library is only buying access to the copy. This may come in the form of a database subscription, or a one time purchase, with various limits on how many users may access the digital copy and for how long. 

This difference in the way physical and digital copies are purchased is primary reason why their lending limits vary.

CONTU Limits

Journal article requests are governed under the CONTU guidance of copyright law, which stipulates that within one calendar year a single library may request no more than five articles from a journal published within the last five years. This is known as the 1-1-5-5 Rule. Curry Library

The library keeps an ongoing tally of CONTU requests for a calendar year for its records, and every calendar year the tally resets. Because it is by calendar year, CONTU thresholds are typically more of a concern in the Fall semester. 

If a request passes over a CONTU limit, the library will inform the library user who requested the article and offer to find an alternative research article. The user may also file an Interlibrary Loan article request through another academic or public library they are a member of, such as Mid-Continent Public Library. 

Public Domain vs. Private Domain

Copyright law grants a privilege to the copyright holder of a work (an author and/or publisher) the sole right to copy that work for dissemination and/or sale. A work whose copies are protected/limited in this way is in the private domain.

This copyright protection is not intended to be permanent, and eventually when its copy limitation ends a work passes into the public domain, meaning that anyone may copy and disseminate the work without legal restriction. Exactly when a work passes into the public domain depends on a number of factors including its country of publication, when the work was originally published, and what copyright law and limits were in place at the time of publication. 

William Jewell College Copyright Policies