Publishers Sue University over the Distribution of Digital Course Packs
Like many universities, Georgia State University distributes electronic reading materials to students, often copying sections of copyrighted materials. But a group of academic publishers have concluded that GSU’s actions go beyond the notion of fair use and they’re suing the university over its actions.
Last week, three publishers - Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Sage Publications - filed suit against GSU for what the suit terms as a “systematic, widespread and unauthorized copying and distribution of a vast amount of copyrighted works.” As has been reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, the suit revolves around so-called “course packs” - electronically copied collections of reading materials distributed by professors to their students. I can still picture the red cover pages and thick plastic bindings used to hold together the course packs I utilized when I was in college. Today, though, these materials are often distributed digitally, such as PDF files made available on campus websites or intranets.
Specifically, the suit charges GSU with “pervasive, flagrant, and ongoing unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials” via its “electronic course reserves service, its Blackboard/WebCT Vista electronic course management system, and its departmental web pages and hyperlinked online syllabi available on websites and computer servers controlled by GSU.” The publishers claim that more than 6,700 copyrighted works were made available in over 600 GSU courses.
Digital course packs are hardly unusual nowadays - the New York Times notes that by some estimates, these materials constitute up to half of all university syllabus reading today. But this is the first time major publishers have sued a university over digital course packs. And precedent may be on their side. For example, Basic Books won a suit against Kinko’s in 1991, stopping the copying company from distributed paper course packs using pages from books they had xeroxed. The following year, a photocopying service known as Michigan Document Services lost a lawsuit against Princeton University Press for distributing course packs to University of Michigan students without permission from copyright owners.
“Georgia State’s activity seems identical with Michigan Document Services’ activity,” Professor Susan Crawford told the Times. “It’s difficult to argue that this is a truly noncommercial use. Georgia State may be a nonprofit institution, but its students pay a lot of money for course materials, and would presumably pay money for the materials being provided to them by the university.”
Some experts, like Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, wonder if the lawsuit might have been premature. “In academic publishing, we need to find the digital services people really want,” Kahle said. “I wonder if this will turn out to be an ‘attack the innovator’ suit like the peer-to-peer suits for the music industry. Sometimes a bit of slack can help us all discover a winning formula.”
“I consider this a failure of dialogue,” Oxford University Press publisher Niko Pfund told Library Journal. “It’s a shame. We’ve successfully come to agreements with others over the years. But Georgia State just wouldn’t talk with us.”
“Fair use is critically important to university presses,” he added. “We can’t publish without a liberal interpretation of fair use. But they were extremely unwilling to enter into a conversation about this.”
For now, George State isn’t commenting. “We have been informed that a lawsuit is being filed,” said spokeswoman DeAnna Hines. “However, we have not received it, and therefore we won’t be able to comment, pending potential litigation.” -andy
Filed under : Policy