Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Latest Battle in the Copyright Wars: Digital Course Packs

From today's New York Times, "Publishers Sue Georgia State on Digital Reading Matter":

In a complaint filed Tuesday in United States District Court in Atlanta, the publishers — Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Sage Publications — sued four university officials, asserting “systematic, widespread and unauthorized copying and distribution of a vast amount of copyrighted works” by Georgia State, which the university distributes through its Web site.

Varying models exist for securing copyright clearance for coursepacks, electronic reserves, and other materials that inhabit the vaguely defined territory between the course textbook and the library collection. Some institutions leave it up to individual faculty, some have a copyright clearance center, some do it through the library. What does seem fairly clear, though, is that as the situation surrounding digital materials and DRM evolves, we'll see more cases like this one.

Professor Crawford's point about disaggregation is interesting, since at least one e-book provider out there--Safari--allows you to do exactly that. Of course, Safari includes more than one publisher, providing (depending on your subscription) comprehensive coverage of its particular subject area. Disaggregation within a single publisher's list might be of limited utility.

As anyone who deals with issues of fair use knows, it's a murky subject, and a common understanding of what it means in an educational context--that it's okay as long as the material is being used for an educational purpose--isn't exactly how it always works out in practice. Charging rights fees for materials used in course packs could well have the effect of determining course pack content; if something is out of copyright, or cheap, or easy to secure the rights to, it'll be more likely to be used, even if it's not necessarily what the professor would prefer.

A copy of the suit (in PDF) is available from the Association of American Publishers. The Association of American University Presses has also posted a copy on their website, along with a press release supporting the complaint. Plaintiffs are Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and SAGE Publications.

The relevance to libraries here should be obvious, regardless of whether a particular university's library plays any role in securing copyright clearance for course packs or reserves. The suit claims that Georgia State exceeded fair use in its provision of copyrighted material (with a side comment that at one point, materials meant for use within individual courses were accessible to the general public, not just to students in those courses), and mentions specifically that making the material available digitally, rather than through printed course packs available through a copy shop (which has presumably paid the requisite licensing fees), has deprived these publishers of revenue.

It also sounds like the suit is specifically regarding materials that have been digitized, as opposed to materials that were owned in digital format in the first place and then made available through a hyperlink to a research database or e-book. These are, presumably, materials that previously would have been made available in printed course packs by either the university bookstore, or by a copy shop, which would have paid the requisite licensing fees. So the claim here is that publishers are losing revenue because the e-reserves setup at Georgia State does not ensure that they receive licensing fees.

As of this writing, Georgia State has not responded.

This is one to watch.

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