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Fair Use Question of the Month: Captioning Copyrighted Film for People with Disabilities


I am a librarian at a liberal arts college. Last week a young man who was hearing-disabled asked if we had a film he wanted to use for his chemistry project in captioned audiovisual format. Not only was it not captioned, I couldn’t find anywhere to buy a captioned version of it--it’s an older work.

Can I legally make a captioned copy for him? And can I keep a copy so someone else who’s hearing-disabled could use it too?



Dear Lauren,

Thank you for your question. Librarians often face the challenge of serving disabled patrons. Academic and research librarians across the country have shaped, through the Association of Research Libraries, a code of best practices in fair use that addressing this and other challenges.

Principle Five states that “when fully accessible copies are not readily available from commercial sources, it is fair use for a library to (1) reproduce materials in its collection in accessible formats for the disabled upon request, and (2) retain those reproductions for use in meeting subsequent requests from qualified patrons.” Any patron of your library should have access to any material for any type of use, whether it be for class, voluntary study, or recreation. In addition, making library materials accessible for all types of patrons also serves the goals of copyright and is inherently fair.

Like other areas of fair use, there are some limitations that you must take into account. Principle Five further goes on to say that libraries should provide patrons with information about their own rights and responsibilities regarding worked provided to them in a certain way, and when appropriate, the patrons use of the materials should be time-limited by analogy to the limits the library imposes on use by other persons.

While archiving the captioned copy makes excellent sense, you may want to reserve the use for times when disabled patrons need to use it, whether they do so individually or as participants in a larger group such as a class.

Once you have defined the limitations your library uses, you’ll be able to figure out whether producing appropriate academic material for some of your patrons constitutes fair use in conformity with the consensus of the profession, and you can make your fair use call with confidence.