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Copyright for Faculty: Copyright and Accessibility

This guide provides resources for faculty and students on U.S. Copyright Law and how it pertains to education.

Copyright and Accessibility

Copyright Exceptions for Persons with Disabilities

Current U.S. copyright law lacks a blanket exception for accessibility (concerning learners with disabilities), relying instead on a patchwork of statutory exceptions and the doctrine of fair use.

There are debates about whether universities qualify as authorized entities, but universities generally argue that they qualify due to legal obligations (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and educational purposes-- just as an organization such as the National Library Service for the Blind.

International Considerations

U.S. copyright law may also be influenced by international agreements. One international treaty directed to making works more accessible is the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities (“Marrakesh VIP Treaty”). The Marrakesh VIP is an international treaty administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) which would obligate signatory countries to create mandatory limitations and exception to their copyright laws. 

The treaty would also permit exchange of accessible works across borders by authorized entities serving the blind, visually impaired and otherwise print disabled. 

Fair Use and Accessibility

One exception in copyright law that has been instrumental in filling in the gaps left by these narrow exceptions (e.g. Chafee Amendment) and promoting accessibility for copyrighted works has been fair use. A recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has reinforced the significant role of fair use in increasing the accessibility of copyrighted works.

In Authors Guild, Inc. v. HathiTrust, HathiTrust created a shared digital repository of collection materials from academic and research member institutions, allowing full access to patrons with qualifying disabilities. The district court held this activity was permissible under the Chafee Amendment, stating that educational institutions “have a primary mission to reproduce and distribute their collections to print‐disabled individuals…[making] each library a potential ‘authorized entity’ under the Chafee Amendment.” The court held, however, that HathiTrust was not precluded from relying on the defense of fair use in the event that they were not authorized entities or did not otherwise fall within the permissible categories of the Chafee Amendment. On appeal, the Second Circuit held that providing full digital access to print-disabled patrons was protected under fair use.

This guide was originally maintained by librarians at the Texas Tech University Architecture Library. It has been updated by the Scholarly Communication Librarian. The updated version was adapted from library material from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), California State University Long Beach, Duke University, New York University and Florida State University. This adaptation, revised by the Florida State College at Jacksonville was based on the most recent edition that was created by Camille Thomas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. 

 Creative Commons License