Providing expertise on copyright law and fair use in the University’s best interest
By Suzy Frisch
Nancy Sims never knows what intriguing question she’s going to be asked next, an appealing part of her job as the University of Minnesota’s copyright program librarian. It might be an inquiry about how a historian secures copyright approvals from her subject’s reluctant and litigious estate, or how professors manage the publication of their work.
It’s all in a day’s work for Sims, who joined the University in 2009 to serve as the guru of everything copyright. She brings a unique background as a librarian and a licensed attorney, using her experience in both arenas to guide the University community on often sophisticated copyright issues. Not only does the job keep her engaged with its wide-ranging questions and implications, it also feeds Sims’ desire to serve the public good.
“Part of what I like is the all-over-the-mapness of my job, and I feel like I am getting to do public interest work here. I love that aspect of it,” says Sims. “I work with individual scholars, and on an institutional level, there is a commitment here to make the University’s scholarship work for the people of the state.”
In addition, Sims serves as a resource about copyright for the University by weighing in on national issues. She speaks at conferences for librarians and lawyers and speaks her mind through her blog and Twitter as @CopyrightLibn. There, readers might find Sims engaging with the likes of rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy, Dessa, the local rapper and writer, and many other thought leaders in legal, library, and technology circles. Sims also can be found bicycling yearround, riding to work even in the bitterest cold days this winter. (She drew the line at 15 degrees below, though.)
All campus resource
When Sims came to campus, she quickly became a valuable — and accessible — resource, thanks to her workshops and individual consultations. Her three main topics cover copyright issues in the classroom, such as what materials instructors can post on their course site, and copyright use in everyday life. Another helps authors and creators understand and manage their individual copyrights.
When unique issues arise, Sims often creates custom workshops to help. Peter Dimock, educational technology coordinator and faculty member in the School of Social Work, reached out to Sims for guidance on fair use rules for copyright. It was stressful for Dimock when faculty members asked him to make copies of videos for class. “I knew a bit about it, but I certainly wasn’t knowledgeable enough to advise people,” he says. “I didn’t want to face a lawsuit because I’m the one making the copies.”
Sims provided social work faculty with resources and taught them how to do a fair use analysis. It determines if they may copy videos or other materials for class or post them online for students. Now, faculty sign off that they did the fair use analysis before Dimock burns a copy for them — a big relief for him. “Even though it’s a fuzzy topic, Nancy presents it in a straightforward, clear, and precise way,” Dimock adds.
“She is obviously knowledgeable and her background as an attorney helps.”
Ann Hill Duin, a professor of writing studies, was thrilled when the University hired Sims. Intellectual property and technology came up often when Duin served as associate vice president for information technology and interim vice president and CIO, such as when she was exploring massive open online courses (MOOCs) for the University.
“She’s got a depth of knowledge and a breadth of connections,” says Duin. “Nancy serves the whole University, not just the Libraries, and she’s a system-wide thinker.”
“She doesn’t come in with 10 PowerPoint slides and a big long lecture. She came with stories of working with graduate and undergraduate students, and asked students what they would do. She got them talking and then brings up resources for them to pay attention to,” Duin says. “As a result of her coming, everyone knows she’s approachable and relevant and understands the issues.”
In the public interest
Sims’ background in libraries runs deep. After earning a master’s degree in library and information science from Rutgers University, she went to work as an instructional technology librarian at the University of Michigan. Eventually she became a subject matter liaison in sociology, an area of study that was her undergraduate major at Harvard.
Sims helps people understand some of the issues surrounding copyright so they can make informed decisions before signing a book or article contract.
- Follow Sims’ blog or her tweats at @CopyrightLibn
Having foundations in both law and libraries is indispensable for Sims. “There are publisher-specific, discipline-specific, and individual-author specific approaches to copyright. Someone with a background in corporate copyright law might not know the differences between how bioscience or computer science or chemistry approach copyright,” she says. “It’s one area where being integrated into the library and scholarship can be helpful for faculty.”
Always determined to practice public interest law, Sims gets to fulfill the University’s land-grant mission and that wish when she heads off campus. She’s talked with librarians at the University of St. Thomas about open access publishing, with State of Minnesota librarians and K-12 teachers, and with a group of quilters about whether their designs are protected by copyright — a fun event for someone who enjoys doing embroidery.
Other times, Sims consults with individuals on their own projects. She helps people understand some of the issues surrounding copyright so they can make informed decisions before signing a book or article contract.
Often, the situations can be heartbreaking: more than once, Sims has met with individuals who want to share the collected works of a long-established scholar, or even a recently deceased author. With a long record of publications, in the hundreds or thousands published over many years, there is an incredible amount of variance in the details of rights ownership and usability.
“They want me to say, ‘Here’s how you can make it all available,’ but there is no easy answer,” Sims says. “Copyright issues are so massive and complicated that there isn’t a quick solution.”
And that’s what keeps Sims on her toes and thoroughly immersed in the world of copyright.