Ownership of Intellectual Property in the Library Complex.

Author:Roughen, Patrick F., Jr.


Libraries are vibrant sources of knowledge, but they are also at a crossroads. As they seek to redefine their place in society, the role they play will undoubtedly change and grow. It is well established that libraries deal with intellectual properties of all kinds, but little is known about their ownership of the legally protected works of creativity, invention, and design that they generate themselves. In the United States, libraries are popularly seen as information providers, assisting those engaged in the research process. Except perhaps for copyrighted matter, libraries have not been traditionally conceptualized as producers of intellectual property. Rather, the library is thought of as a facilitator of innovation (Daland & Walmann-Hidle, 2016).

A significant number of for-profit and nonprofit businesses, which are associated with libraries through their provision of various kinds of equipment, software, and databases, can be found to own patents; outstanding examples are OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) and the Library Bureau. Along with libraries, these organizations may be conceptualized as elements of a library complex, which includes all those entities which specialize in supplying libraries with the material means for accomplishing their goals, missions, and purposes. The library complex evolved at least, in part, as a result of the needs of libraries to obtain those means; however, in the context of international libraries, there may be less formality or differentiation with regards to its structure, possibly allowing foreign libraries to be more flexible when it comes to intellectual property. It is interesting to note that the library complex could even comprise companies involved in library architectural and interior design, as certain firms focus on those areas (McCarthy, 2007).

While it is not unusual for universities and other academic institutions to collect royalties on patents (Sampat, 2009), a basic search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office records (1976- present) indicates that it is still the exception for United States libraries to be listed on patents as their owner; however, when it comes to the higher education enterprise, it may be of little significance whether the parent institution or a subdivision thereof, such as a library, is listed as the owner or "assignee" of a patent. Although libraries in the United States are more focused on buying and lending materials protected by intellectual property than creating it, it is not unusual for universities to be major hubs of innovation. And so educational institutions and the bodies that administer them can often be found to own intellectual property. Unless advertised or announced, often the only way one can know whether companies and various organizations are involved in the creation of new technologies in the first place is to search for and examine the patent records associated with them (Dhawan, 2006). Copyright, of course, is a different matter; when one considers the digitization of archives, and the preparation of library guides and textual resources, "[n]ot only are libraries purchasing intellectual property, they are producing and maintaining it. Libraries are publishers." (Dais and Lafferty, 2005, p. 21). In short, libraries purchase and receive copyrighted materials all the time.

In other parts of the world, it is possible that libraries may be breaking out of conventional patterns, becoming more directly involved in the development of intellectual property. This may be partly due to the less regulated state of intellectual property laws in other parts of the world, such as China (Behr, 2017), but could also be part of a coordinated national effort in some cases (McCary 2013). This research attempts to broadly characterize the production of intellectual property by libraries and closely associated businesses by investigating some of the major trends in library-related patents, followed by a brief analysis of the intellectual property coming out of an important American public library, Charlotte Mecklenberg Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Literature Review

In the past, libraries were not seen as places of patent and trademark legal activity, although they have long served as a source of demand for technology (such as catalogs), which positively influenced the development of innovation, which was subsequently exploited in the for-profit sector (Franzraich 1990). Libraries undoubtedly help inventors, and some, such as the Patent and Trademark Resource Centers (PTRC), are designated by the United States Patent and Trademark Office to provide patent and trademark search assistance and answer pertinent research questions (Jenda, 2005). However, the PTRCs are not inventive entities in their own right, nor are they sources of legal advice on patent prosecution.

Most academic libraries in the U.S. help staff provide access to online patent tutorials (Baldwin, 2007), but that is the closest they come to the inventive process or the various procedural steps which must be followed to establish patent protection. In general, little is known about the role that intellectual property ownership plays in libraries, though branding, a related practice, is now common and studied (Roughen, 2012). When brands are used for commercial or similar purposes they obtain a level of trademark protection, and they are used by many libraries to publicize their services. In fact, as early as 2011 Hariff and Rowley observed that [b]randing, the "art and cornerstone of marketing" (Kotler, 2003, p. 418), has moved from a peripheral interest into the heart of a number of UK library authority marketing plans" (p. 18). Thus, brands may be protected through trademark law, while technical innovation can be protected by patents (Schechter, 2006).

Despite their historic contributions, "libraries and related technology have not been considered or studied by institutional historians, and conceptualizations derived from business or entrepreneurial history have not yet been applied to the history of libraries" (Flanzraich 1990). Since patents are still infrequently owned by United States libraries, the emphasis here is on some major types of innovation associated with patents owned by businesses closely allied with libraries--in the library complex. And since trademarks are now common, this study will explore one particular public library, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, which has made substantial efforts to protect its intellectual property in the past. Charlotte makes a good case study because it has a portfolio of trademarks, as well as a limited number of registered copyrights. As an aside, it should be stated that some librarians such as Melvil Dewey and Adelaide Hasse are recognized as the source of important innovative ideas, even though this recognition has been late in coming in some instances (Grotzinger, 1978).

Libraries and Technical Innovation

The roles that libraries play in the development of new technologies may be changing, whether in making available the means to build or devise inventions or help with the steps needed to protect them. Scholarly communication initiatives seem to be more prominent, and libraries "are taking a more active part in university research" (Daland & Walmann-Hidle, 2016, p. xi). The idea of libraries as incubators or places where entrepreneurs can develop technology or clearinghouses for intellectual property is discussed in the...

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