Okay, this is really quite unfortunate. In 2011, we wrote about an important copyright case involving three publishers suing
Georgia State University for daring to have "e-reserves" that allow professors to make certain works available to students electronically via the university library. Nancy Sims, copyright librarian for the University of Minnesota, wrote a guest post summarizing the case for us as follows:
The publisher-plaintiffs are suing over the way instructors (and possibly others on campus) share course readings like academic articles and excerpts from academic books. They are objecting both to readings posted on course websites (i.e., uploaded by instructors and accessible only to students registered for a course) and readings shared via "e-reserves" (i.e., shared online through university libraries, usually also with access restricted to students registered for the course). The publishers claim that sharing copies of readings with students is not usually a fair use, that faculty can't really be trusted to make their own calls about what is or is not fair use, and that permissions fees should be paid for most of these uses.
Thankfully, last year, we wrote about how the district court issued an astounding 350-page ruling that basically said that most of these electronic reserves were clearly fair use
. We had some issues with the way the judge went about the analysis -- often coming up with random and arbitrary standards for the amount of a work that could be used while remaining fair use, but, on the whole, it was good to see the judge support fair use relatively strongly (and, in some cases, to not even get to a fair use analysis by saying that the use was allowed as "de minimis" copying).
Of course, no matter what happened, the other side was going to appeal. We're getting closer to the appeals court hearing the case, but something interesting popped up last week. In a somewhat surprising move, the Justice Department
jumped in and asked the court for some more time
for the filing of amicus briefs from concerned third parties, because it was considering weighing in on the case. The Justice Department
? Why should it be interested in a dispute concerning whether or not public university libraries are engaged in fair use by making works available to students?
In digging into this, we've heard from a few sources that it's actually the US Copyright Office that has asked the DOJ to weigh in on the side of the publishers
and against the interests of public univerisities and students
. Yes, the same Copyright Office that just promoted
a former RIAA VP to second in command. I'm sure that's just a coincidence.
Let's be clear: it is flat out ridiculous that the Obama Administration may be supporting the publishers here. Two out of the three publishers are foreign publishing giants, and it would be supporting them against
a public university library
tasked with helping to educate students. The entire purpose of copyright law is supposed to be to promote the progress of learning
. The copyright clause in the Constitution used "science" but back in that era "learning" and "science" were effectively synonymous. The very first Copyright Act in the US was actually titled "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning." Current copyright law is explicit
that fair use covers this sort of situation:
the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.
And yet... these publishers, along with the US Copyright Office and (perhaps) the DOJ, would like to ignore all of this, and reject fair use in such public learning centers? It is ridiculous. Oh, and did we mention that the lawsuit by these publishers is really being funded by the Copyright Clearance Center (who, shockingly, would be in charge of collecting fees for such uses...) and the American Publishers' Association? If the Obama Administration wanted to appear any more in the pocket of "Big Copyright" and against
the public interest when it comes to learning and education, I'm not sure of any better position to take.
This is just a year after the SOPA fight, and it appears that the Copyright Office, led by Maria Pallante, who was a massive supporter of SOPA
, has not learned the lesson of that debacle. It would be a travesty if the Justice Department listened to such an out of touch position and argued that the court should reject fair use in such scenarios.
It would be a complete embarrassment for an Obama administration that has argued that improving our education system is a key policy issue
to turn its back on education by having its Justice Department argue against a public university library and students, and in favor of a blatantly self-interested copyright collection agency, funding some foreign publishers, trying to shake down students for extra money to learn. Just the fact that the US Copyright Office is supporting this and asking the Justice Department to make this move is a sign of how screwed up the Copyright Office is today. And it remains unclear why this is even an issue that concerns the Justice Department at all. Since when is access of students at a public university to educational materials an issue that should be of any interest to the Justice Department?
For what it's worth, we've heard that the people in the Justice Department who are considering its position are talking to various government agencies and officials over the next few days to determine what its final position should be. We would hope that the Justice Department, and the wider Obama administration (including the Copyright Office), take into account what happened last year when SOPA was put forth and the government sought to use copyright law to limit the public's rights. It would seem unwise to then take a position that might stir up significant interest, specifically when it involves something as ridiculous as supporting foreign publishers over public university students seeking reasonable fair use access to educational materials, as is clearly supported by the Copyright Act.