Incompetent. Ham-handed. Disappointing. No, I’m not talking about the 2013 Razorback football team, but the University of Arkansas Library staff’s continued PR blitz in response to the recent Washington Free Beacon ordeal.
Their latest attempt at explaining away the controversy came Saturday in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette guest column co-authored by UA library officials, Carolyn Henderson Allen and Timothy Nutt, where they lamented “a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation circulating in the media.” Oddly enough, they didn’t actually identify any misunderstanding or misinformation in the media, but they succeeded in churning out some misinformation of their own.
In their column, Nutt and Allen say:
Despite what you may have read, the staff of University of Arkansas Libraries are completely neutral regarding the intended use of library materials by researchers. Anything else would be inappropriate, and go against widely accepted library practice.
We’re not just neutral, they say. We’re “completely neutral.” And I am sure that, for someone who donated $500 to Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign in 2007, Allen is as neutral as it is possible to get. Now, Allen has every right to donate to whoever she wants, but to suggest she was “completely neutral” when deciding whether to bar the Washington Free Beacon, a news organization which tends to be critical of Clinton, is hard to credit — especially because we now know her action was based on defending imaginary property rights against an imaginary incursion on them.
Of the necessity for the permission to publish form requirement, Allen and Nutt say:
…a permission to publish request protects all users. Disregarding any legal onus we might have to protect copyright, we also want to track use and keep the donors of our collections apprised of how their papers have been used. It’s good customer relations.
If the library only considers library employees trying to “track use” and donors as their customers, then possibly this is correct. However, public libraries should also strive to maintain “good customer relations” with all researchers and the general public. Sending implicitly threatening letters full of lawyerese that reference nonexistent incursions of intellectual property rights doesn’t seem like good customer relations to me — nor does making researchers ask permission to use public documents at a public library in order to inform the general public.
Notably, Roy Reed, the interviewer who actually owns the copyright to the documents the Free Beacon used recently, said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week about the Free Beacon publishing his work:
I don’t see anything wrong with that. I certainly don’t object to it”
What this means is that UA library officials, desperate to generate an account some sort of injury that they could use to justify their actions, manufactured an injury that never existed.
Finally, Allen and Nutt say:
The library does not ban patrons from researching. The library has temporarily suspended the research privileges of one professional organization that has repeatedly failed to follow the library’s policies. The organization only has to fill out a one-page form to regain its research privileges, something that doesn’t seem too onerous for anyone who respects copyright. No other researcher or media organization has had any problem with the request, not reporters from as far away as CNN or as near as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
This is just not true. As The Arkansas Project has reported previously, a UA spokesperson said in an e-mail to administrators in June upon finding out about the UA’s action against the Free Beacon said:
I know they didn’t follow our policies–but other media considered our policy unconstitutional. Obvious PR problems.
The weekend guest column in the statewide newspaper may have convinced the UA library staff that their suspect claims defending their action taken against the Free Beacon was noble and just. But we remain unconvinced. It is almost as if the column authors are attempting to demonstrate that they are completely ignorant with basic principles of copyright, such as the fair use rights that everyone has under the law to quote brief passages of a larger work. The question of fair use rights would be the first thing that any competent administrator would explore in this case, and it is more than a little mysterious that the valiant copyright enforcers at the U of A ignored it..
The bottom line: If not changed, the university’s copyright law interpretations and permission to publish requirements could lead to “obvious PR problems” for the foreseeable future.