Making it Happen – Iowa City Public Library licenses local music for patrons

File this one under “why I still read press releases even though 95% of them are junk” Got a nice email from John Hiett of Iowa City Public Library letting me know about their local music project which is launching today. Hiett explains: “We’re offering local cardholders free, DRM-less downloads of records by local musicians. We’ve leased the rights for a two year period at $100 per record. We launch this beast June 8 at We have over 30 albums locked down, but the list is growing and we expect to top out at around 50. This includes most of the best known Iowa City bands over the last couple decades.”

I thought this was a pretty cool sounding project and one that I’m surprised more libraries haven’t already been doing for years. I emailed John back to ask him a few questions about it.

1. You say in your FAQ that you think this is a replicable model for other libraries. What would you suggest for other libraries who want to try something like this?

You’d need a budget, some web expertise and some authentication software to keep it local, none of which should be too much of a barrier. Feel free to adopt our contract, available at

Just get bands signed up, collect W-9 forms for tax purposes, rip the disc, scan the cover, post, and let people know.

2. What was the most challenging part of this project?

Apparently, nobody starts a band to fill out paperwork. While musicians almost unanimously responded enthusiastically to our initial pitch, getting them to actually sign the contract often took quite a bit of follow-up. I tried not to beg, but in a few cases . . .

Having a good team makes a big difference. When I took this idea to our director, Susan Craig, I asked for enough money to lease 20 albums at $50 each. She said to get 50 and offer $100. Our webmaster James Clark’s work recalls that old Arthur C. Clarke quote, ” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Mara Cole’s artwork moves me in ways that commercial art shouldn’t. Other people have coordinated publicity, kept track of the financial details, and done original cataloging.

The challenging part may be yet to come. If we don’t generate some threshold of downloads, it’s only been a fun experiment. Also, I’m already hearing from musicians who want to be included, tho the money’s gone for now. Letting them down gently might be hard.

3. What inspired you to decide to do the legwork on a project like this instead of going with one of the off-the-shelf music options?

I was watching Dave Zollo play late one night (definitely a Talent Deserving Wider Recognition) and wondered why we sent all our music money out of town, when he was as good as anyone we bought (and he uses our library). I may have had a few at that point, but emailed myself. The more I thought about it, the more I saw how it could work. Plus, it gave me a chance to meet some cool people.

showing movies @ your library.

I noticed when I went to one of the libraries I work with that they had received their public performance rights to show movies at the library, apparently as some blanket deal from the Department of Libraries. I read the documentation that came from Movie Licensing USA, an outfit that provides public performance licensing to schools and libraries. With a cost that they never state but call “reasonable” this group will give you a piece of paper that seems to say that the MPAA will stay off your back if you want to show movies @ your library. Well, not all movies, just ones by the major studios that they represent. You also can’t advertise the showing of your movie to the general public. If you want to put a listing in the newspaper you can only do so in the vaguest of terms — without actually using the name of the movie you are showing. They suggest ideas like “The library will be showing a tale of wizardry by the author JK Rowling.”

While the company won’t give you information about copyright law in general — ALA has this page for the curious — they seem more than happy to tell you what you are NOT allowed to do under copyright law. The printed materials that come with the license are even more bizarre and talk about “avoiding the embarassment of a lawsuit” as one reason a library might want to obtain public performance rights.

If your library is looking into obtaining public performance rights, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has a good list of questions to ask a licensing service.

Copyright, licensing, the government and you

Walt Crawford has a long piece in the latest Cites & Insights about the Creative Commons Non-Commercial license, responding to some online arguments against them by the Free Content community (Walt’s capitalization creates a useful distinction) including Wikipedia. My approach to the NC designation which I also use on this site, is philosophically much the same as Walt’s. If you’re using my content as a primary method of making money for yourself, please cut me in on it. If you’re not, then go ahead and use what you’d like. Letting me know is always appreciated.

This specific designation on this blog has come into play three times that I can recall.

  1. The New York Times magazine reprinted a text version of my Five Technically Legal Signs for Your Library, only they changed five to three and changed some of the wording and credited the material incorrectly. I wrote them a pointed email outlining this and highlighting the site license, and they allowed me a heavily edited response in the letters section of the next issue.
  2. When a Wikipedia editor wrote an article about me, I was asked if I would offer my “The FBI Has Not Been Here” sign as an illustration. This seemed to be preferable to some dorky picture of me, so I agreed. They needed me to remove the license from that image in order to have it be available on Wikipedia which is a Free Content site — meaning that you can use any image in Wikipedia for any puspose at all. Remember the people who own the content and dictate the terms of the license can negotiate other deals for their own content, the license is just a shortcut for people who want to know “what can I do with this content without even asking?”
  3. When TechSoup asked to reprint an article of mine on safety and security issues for public access PCs that had originally appeared on WebJunction, they asked if I wouldn’t mind putting a CC license on the content so that it could be reprinted by other nonprofits which seemed fine to me. We had a little back and forth about how much editing the reprinted article would go through. The fact that I had licensed the content made it a little easier to have the content presented the way I wanted it to be presented and I’m happy with the result.

This luxury assumes of course that you own the content to begin with, and that you know you own it. As we move into the shiny world of user-created content in the form of blogs, podcasts, collaborative online projects and ephemeral notations (do you own the comments you put on someone else’s blog?) this will get more complicated before it gets simpler. For another copright consideration to sink your teeth into, K. Matthew Danes has put together a long easy-to-read piece on what copying means in a library context including a deep look at Section 108 which governs copying by libraries. Read and learn.