Copyright As Censorship: University Threatens Own Faculty With Copyright Infringement For Campus Survey
from the institutes-of-higher-learning dept
This story is incredible. Saint Louis University is threatening a faculty member with copyright infringement claims for his decision to take a survey of his colleagues. It appears that the faculty and the administration have been battling with each other recently, leading to a “no confidence” vote by students and faculty of the University provost. In response, the Board of Trustees sent around a “climate survey” to faculty, staff and students — but some had complained that the questions were not useful and only asked one question about the leadership of that provost, Lawrence Biondi. In response, some of the faculty designed their own “supplemental survey” for other faculty members that included more questions, specifically about Biondi’s relationship with the faculty itself.
The Saint Louis University chapter of the American Association of University Professors responded to the board’s surveys by attempting to devise its own “AAUP Supplemental Survey” for faculty members that would include specific questions about Father Biondi. Where the university’s survey for faculty members asked how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement “The university appreciates the contributions of the faculty,” the AAUP survey would, for example, ask how much respondents agreed with the statement “The president appears to respect and value the faculty.”
However, the University is having none of this and has threatened the AAUP’s President with claims of copyright infringement.
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article on March 27 mentioned the AAUP chapter’s plan for a survey. The next day the chapter’s president, Steven G. Harris, a professor of mathematics and computer science, received a letter from William R. Kauffman, the university’s vice president and general counsel, telling him that the university’s new surveys are copyrighted and any use of them would violate federal law.
Mr. Kauffman’s letter said that anything derived from the university’s surveys would likewise be regarded as a violation of the university’s rights. “Any infringement,” the letter said, “will be addressed by the university and could result in legal action” in which the university could seek injunctive relief, damages, and the recovery of any legal fees.
This is incredible on so many levels, none of which makes Saint Louis University look good. First, this is a clear case of using copyright to censor, rather than for any legitimate purpose of copyright (it’s like the University needed the incentives of copyright to develop this survey). Second, the “supplemental survey” is clearly asking different questions, not the same questions. Third, it’s difficult to see how basic survey questions would have enough creative element to qualify for copyright protection in the first place, and even in the rare cases where they did, it would be likely that the protection would be quite thin, and hardly likely to be infringed upon by a separate and different set of questions.
But, most importantly, if the University board was looking to suggest that the faculty was happy with the administration, it would appear that threatening a bogus copyright infringement lawsuit demonstrates the exact opposite message. Truly incredible.
Unfortunately, the chilling effects of the threat may be working in silencing the survey attempt:
“The issue,” he said, “is not whether the university will prevail in such a suit but whether I would be forced to run up enormous legal bills to defend against such a suit.”
Of course, given that the likely point of the supplemental survey was to highlight problems between the administration and the faculty, the threat of the lawsuit seems to have accomplished that goal already.
The Chronicle of Higher Education also notes that Saint Louis University has sued another professor over questionable copyright claims before, and even though that professor won, he still racked up $10,000 in legal bills. And yet, the maximalists tell us, there are no examples of copyright being used to stifle free speech…