Brash Jobs: Copyright and Permission

Hey Friends!

Wow, I’ve been waiting for MONTHS to write this post. So many other posts and events were getting in the way,

This week, I wanted to talk about using copyrighted materials with your library and obtaining permission. Recently, my library got its own Facebook page and it’s been a smashing success; however, we wanted to put more entertaining posts from outside the library. Sure, promoting our programs and services is great, but the occasional comic strip or funny article can help engage people.

Many social media gurus out there will tell you that nobody wants to hear about your stuff all the time. If every post looks like HEY WE HAVE THIS PROGRAM GOING ON! IT’S GREAT! YOU SHOULD COME TO IT!then you’ll tune out at some point and all future posts fall on deaf ears. (or deaf eyes, I guess.) As a result, systems have been established by different social media firms. One example is the 3-3-1 method: for every three posts you have promoting stuff, you should have three outside your organization (an article, blog post, etc) and one humorous post just to engage people. There’s plenty of other systems and styles out there like the 5-3-2 method, it really depends on your organization and how often you plan on posting content.

Anyway, what we really wanted to post for our funny segments were comic strips from the very popular librarian comic series, Unshelved. If you’re a librarian, there’s a 99% chance you’ve heard of Unshelved at some point. If you haven’t, check them out right away!


These people understand us.

However, we were very hesitant to post any of the comics. In this sue-happy world of copyright infringement, using someone’s  material is a veritable minefield , and we weren’t ready to mess with that…so I started to do some digging.

As it turns out, many libraries, writers, authors, schools and nonprofit organizations have been the same boat before – we all want to post funny and interesting stuff, but not at the price of getting sued/fined/beaten with a wet rope. Thankfully, there are ways to keep this from happening known as Fair Use!

So what exactly is “Fair Use”?

Fair Use is defined as:

“a legal doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. It is one type of limitation and exception to the exclusive rights copyright law grants to the author of a creative work. Examples of fair use in United States copyright law include commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship.”

In other words, it allows legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author’s work – within reason, of course.

Could posting of the material be considered a “fair use” under the Copyright Act?

Use is likely fair if:

  • Character of the use is nonprofit, educational, or personal
  • Nature of the material used is factual published material
  • Only a small amount of the material will be posted
  • Impact on the market for the material is very small

Another important factor many sources agree on is whether or not the publisher gives people the option to share it with others, the logic being, “if they give a Share button that lets me post it on social media, they’re implying that it’s okay for me to share it”. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Share option

Unshelved has a share option as well.

Use is likely not fair if:

  • Character of the use is commercial (promoting a product or service, charging to access the copyrighted material, advertisements)
  • Nature of the material used is imaginative and/or unpublished
  • The majority of the material will be posted (for example, an entire book or chapter instead of a quoted sentence)
  • Use detrimentally impacts the market for the original
  • Use was “fair” at one time, but has been repeatedly reused or more widely distributed, or the copyright owner has requested that the use be limited or discontinued. For example, use of a portion of a journal article or a photo may have been Fair Use one time, but used annually for the same event or purpose, loses its Fair Use character.

For more on Fair Use, I’d recommend you check out:


Now reading through all of this seems promising, but I wanted to take no chances. What if I missed some loophole and wound up on the wrong side of a lawsuit? No way that was happening to me, so I opted for the smartest thing I could think of: Why not just…ask them?

Thus started my email to the writers of Unshelved:

“My name is Justin, and I’m a public librarian. We just absolutely love Unshelved and share it via email all the time! We’ve recently started a Facebook page for our library and we’d like to post Unshelved comics for our patrons to also enjoy. However, we wanted to get your permission before we ever posted anything – we’ve heard too many copyright “author sues library” horror stories. Please let me know if you have any questions, and feel free to peruse our Facebook and library home pages in the meantime.”

…And now we wait.

Good morning, Justin!  I enjoyed visiting your Facebook page. It looks like you have a wonderful library with some amazing services. (And I adore the Minion tree.) I’m glad you love Unshelved and want to spread the word to your patrons. While we cannot grant you permission to directly post any of our content, we do have a Facebook page where our strips and blog entries are automatically posted. Please feel free to like, share, and/or send those with abandon! (Sharing will let them show up in your timeline, but still give us proper attribution.)

Thanks for thinking of us!

Homer channels my inner happy dance.

Once I knew it was safe to post, I forwarded the good news to those staff who post things on our Facebook page. After that, I told her a little more about who I am, what I do, invited Angela to peruse my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and asked if it was okay to include her in my article. I’m pretty sure they put some kind of happy juice in the water over there…

Hello again, Justin! Thanks for sucking all productivity out of my afternoon by sending links to your accounts. Your Twitter feed alone send me tumbling down the internet rabbit hole for an embarrassing amount of time…Um, where did my day go?

To get back to the point, yes, you are welcome to write about this experience for your article. I don’t know if it’s useful, but here is our full reuse policy so you can see how we approach encouraging people to share our work without giving up the recognition that the creative guys behind this deserve.
Let me know if you have other questions, and thanks for the entertaining content!

Like I said, I’ve been itching to do this article for months but have had a backlog of other topics along with stuff that was very time-sensitive…I can do a RIP David Bowie post a few days after his death, but I can’t do it 3 months after. (Same for you, Alan Rickman.)

That being said, let me start my 8-part apology to Angela.
so sorry

On a scale of “sorry I’m not sorry” to “I’m very sorry”, I’m a “David Tennant in the rain” kind of sorry.

I really hope this week’s post helps out other libraries who want to add more humor to their content but have been afraid to do so in the past. Don’t forget to support Unshelved on Patreon! Cartoon writers and Angela need to eat, too.

I hope everyone has a fantastic weekend, and stay safe out there! The rain and flooding here in Texas has been ridiculous, I’m about ready to start taking a canoe to work.

Justin Brasher, Brash Librarian


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