Compact copyright: an interview with author Sara R. Benson

Compact copyright: an interview with author Sara R. Benson

As a lawyer, copyright librarian, and iSchool instructor, Sara R. Benson has plenty of experience fielding questions that involve delving into murky legal precedent and current law.  Designed for for both on-the-fly reference and staff training, her new book Compact Copyright: Quick Answers to Common Questions presents practical discussions of key legal concepts, illustrated using 52 scenarios, to lead readers to fast, accurate answers on a range of topics. We had the chance to ask the author some questions about how the pandemic has changed copyright queries and why telling patrons "this is going to take awhile" is sometimes the best policy.  


Congrats on the new book! How did the concept of “compact copyright” come together and how was the process of writing a book?


Sara R. Benson: The concept was born at the ALA Annual Conference a few years ago in Chicago when I met with Patrick Hogan, [retired] senior editor with ALA Publishing, to discuss a possible writing project. I knew I wanted to contribute to the field with a longer monograph, but I wasn’t sure what exactly to write after completing my project Copyright Conversations with ACRL. Patrick suggested that a quick reference guide with hypotheticals and answers could be a really great addition to the literature and the idea for Compact Copyright was born!

How has a shift to working and studying remotely impacted the way copyright questions get asked and answered?

Sara R. Benson: Copyright questions have always made their way to me through a variety of methods, including walk-in patrons, online reference questions, telephone calls, and more. Since the rapid shift to online teaching happened during the pandemic, though, I find that I receive more and more questions remotely through email. But, the rapid shift to online teaching and learning was a real opportunity for copyright specialists to reach out to the wider community, too, and Virtual Copyright Office Hours were held online to help anyone and everyone with copyright-related questions. The wider group of copyright librarians, through an organization called the University Information Policy Officers really stepped up and released a public document about fair use during COVID and the rapid shift to online teaching available at

People who approach library workers with copyright questions usually want them answered as fast as possible. What are some pieces of advice you can offer for providing speedy but accurate answers?


Sara R. Benson: Yes, that is true. People who have copyright questions are often facing deadlines. However, copyright questions can also be less than clear, especially if you are dealing with foreign works. Some questions, however, are more straightforward and can be answered quickly. I would be honest with the patron and let them know whether the question they have asked is one that can be answered quickly or one that might take some research and time. If it will take time, do not be afraid to say so—after all, the patron wants a complete answer, not just a quick one.


What are a few simple steps that folks can take to stay up to date with copyright developments?

Sara R. Benson: Great question! One thing that is easy to do is to follow current developments at the US Copyright Office by subscribing to news from the Office including calls for public comment. Of course, another way to stay up-to-date on copyright issues is to listen to my podcast, Copyright Chat, which is available on Stitcher, iTunes, Google Play, and online.

Learn more at the ALA Store.