Recently, Tim Geigner had a post about the lawsuit concerning fair use at Georgia State University. Nancy Sims, the Copyright Librarian at University of Minnesota Libraries offered to write up a guest post delving into the deeper issues raised by this lawsuit.
Trial is currently under way in a copyright suit against Georgia State University brought by a number of academic publishers (and funded by an interesting additional party). We won't know the outcome of the trial for a while, and the losing party (whoever it ends up being) will almost certainly appeal the district court's decision, so the case hasn't attracted much attention outside of academic spheres. But it has the potential to set some far-reaching precedents on fair use, and anyone interesting in copyright and tech policy should be following.
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.
Without going into the details of the draconian injunction the publishers have requested if they prevail, the baseline claim of the lawsuit - that few of these uses are fair uses - is a pretty extreme one. The publisher-plaintiffs are emphasizing that online sharing of readings is equivalent to paper photocopied coursepacks, because lawsuits in the 1990s established that it's not fair use when commercial copy shops sell paper coursepacks for profit. Suddenly the copy shops (which had been providing the coursepacks for just over reproduction costs) had to clear licensing for each article or chapter included. (Fun party trick: to identify which individuals in a room full of academics were students later than 1996; simply ask them whether their coursepacks were affordable, or expensive. Additional fun: watch the expressions on the faces of pre-1996 students when you tell them how much coursepacks currently cost students - as much as $500 per pack!) Incidentally, the Copyright Clearance Center, the ostensibly non-profit organization that facilitates paying for those permissions, although not a party to the Georgia State suit, is underwriting the publisher-plaintiffs' litigation fees.
But the "coursepack cases" were all focused on copying at commercial copy shops. None of the currently-contested uses are for-profit. The only market harm is that the publishers are willing to license every use, but the academic community is not taking them up on this offer. (Much of the content shared in course websites has even already been purchased once for campus use as licensed library resources - although most of the licenses are only for access through the publisher website. E-reserve materials are less likely to be materials for which the library already has subscription access - they're more likely to be unique or one-off materials.) While the fair use statute does say that harm to "potential markets" is relevant to a fair use determination, a ruling against fair use at Georgia State would do a lot to establish that any time a copyright holder is willing to sell a license, not taking them up on it is inherently infringement.
It is also helpful for the plaintiffs to focus on coursepacks because in those cases, copy shops were held responsible for the decisions instructors made about what readings to copy for their students. In the Georgia State case, the plaintiffs are arguing not just that most course reading uses are not fair uses, but that the University should be responsible for individual instructors' decisions on fair use. Certainly, individual instructors may make bad decisions about fair use sometimes, but the publishers don't want to deal with the inefficiency and negative PR that would accompany suing individual instructors. Trying to have the institution held liable makes for a very efficient lawsuit, and if the tactic succeeds, will force the institution to develop a single policy on use of course materials - vitiating the flexibility and case-by-case determination that fair use is supposed to provide far more rapidly than suits against individuals would.
However much the plaintiffs would like it to be so, paper coursepacks are not the only relevant comparison. For example "e-reserves" are very similar to more traditional "course reserves", where a physical copy of an item is held "on reserve" at the library and individual students can check it out for short periods of time. Most students check out reserve materials just long enough to photocopy or scan the readings for their own use - and many would accept that those personal copies are legitimate fair uses. Sharing articles on course websites is very similar to an instructor handing out paper copies in class - again, a practice many would consider to be a fair use. Even the existing precedents against some uses of research articles admit that making personal copies of articles for research is often a fair use - "We do not deal with the question of copying by an individual, for personal use in research or otherwise (not for resale), recognizing that under the fair use doctrine or the de minimis doctrine, such a practice by an individual might well not constitute an infringement." (AMERICAN GEOPHYSICAL UNION v. TEXACO INC., 60 F.3d 913 (2nd Cir. 1994).)
Finally, the copyright statute explicitly includes "multiple copies for classroom use" as an example of a fair use. Certainly it is possible that some of the e-reserves and course website uses that instructors undertake trespass outside the bounds of fair use. But no institution can police use decisions on the part of all its participants at the level of responsibility this suit seeks to impose without creating policies that wipe out any contextual sensitivity or flexibility in what is supposed to be copyright's "breathing space". Additionally, because copies for classroom use are an archetypical fair use, if the publisher-plaintiffs prevail in this suit, it undermines fair use claims in all of the other areas explicitly listed in the statute (including "criticism, comment, news reporting, [...] scholarship, or research") - much less those not enumerated specifically as examples of fair uses. This obscure academic fair use lawsuit has the potential for broad impact on us all.
Update: Since this post was written, there have been some updates on the case, which you can read about here. It appears that the "nightmare scenario" has been avoided for now...