Thursday, March 18, 2010

In Court, a University and Publishers Spar Over 'Fair Use' of Course Materials; Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/14/10

Jennifer Howard, Chronicle of Higher Education; In Court, a University and Publishers Spar Over 'Fair Use' of Course Materials:

"Maybe you're a professor who wants to use a chunk of copyrighted material in your course this spring. Or perhaps you're a librarian or an academic publisher. If so, the much-followed Google Book Search settlement is not the only legal case you need to be watching. A federal case involving publishers and a state-university system, Cambridge University Press et al. v. Patton et al., should produce a ruling soon, and its stakes are high.

First, a little history. In the spring of 2008, three academic publishers, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and SAGE Publications, brought a lawsuit against several top administrators at Georgia State University. The plaintiffs claimed that the university was encouraging the unauthorized digital copying and distribution of too much copyrighted material, particularly through its ERes and uLearn systems. ERes allows students to access digital copies of course material via a password-protected Web page; uLearn is a program professors can use to distribute syllabi and reading material.

The three publishers alleged that the unauthorized copying was "pervasive, flagrant, and ongoing." In February 2009, Georgia State put in place a revised copyright policy, including a checklist for faculty members to help them decide whether the amount of material they wanted to copy exceeded fair use.

Almost two years and many depositions later, both sides have filed briefs asking for a summary judgment in the case.

Legal briefs are a dry genre, but these tussle over some of the central questions of fair use in an academic context: How much is too much when it comes to copying rights-protected content without permission? To what extent is it the institution's job to shepherd its professors and students through the thorny complexities of copyright?

Unfair Use

The publishers' filing attacks what it calls the university's "blanket presumption of 'fair use'" in a higher-education context. The filing goes after the university's new fair-use checklist and copyright policy, saying that it "delegates the responsibility for ensuring copyright compliance entirely to faculty unschooled in copyright law."

The plaintiffs quote from the depositions of several Georgia State professors who acknowledge that they are not always clear on the copyright issues at stake. ("This is outside of my area of expertise," one is quoted as saying.) The publishers want the university to use the Copyright Clearance Center's licensing system or something like it for course materials.

The defendants take a strict we-didn't-do-it view. Their brief argues that "any alleged unlawful reproduction, distribution, or improper use was actually done by instructors, professors, students, or library employees."

Georgia State's filing also argues that the new copyright policy has drastically reduced the use of the plaintiffs' copyrighted material. It agrees with the plaintiffs that the defendants have no budget for permissions fees and that "faculty members would decline to use works like those at issue if there was an obligation to pay permissions fees."

So on one side you have a set of major academic publishers understandably eager to protect revenue, and on the other side you have a university that says it doesn't promote copyright infringement and doesn't have the money to pay a lot of permissions fees. One implication (threat?) one could draw is that if professors can't use what they need at no charge, they will probably use something else.

Complexities of Copyrights

I asked Kevin L. Smith, the scholarly-communications officer at Duke University, for his reaction. Mr. Smith helps scholars sort out copyright complexities—a function that is becoming ever more essential in university life, as this case makes very clear—and he has written about the GSU case on his blog, Scholarly Communications

For the moment, publishers appear unwilling to go after individual professors. "These faculty members are the same people who provide the content that university presses publish, so it would be really self-defeating," Duke's copyright maven, Mr. Smith, explained. "It would also be an endless game of 'whack-a-mole.' They would prefer a broad judgment against a university."
In any case, the Duke expert said, a fair-use case like this deserves more than a summary judgment. This case cuts to the heart of how many professors choose course material now and how students use it. Summary judgment or not, Duke's Mr. Smith said, "I think faculty and administrators should be very concerned.""

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