Landmark Copyright Decision Defends Fair Use

I just learned this morning that an important lawsuit was decided Friday afternoon. It has a rather detailed and complicated back story, more so than I can cover on this blog. But this is a case that needs to be covered.

Back in 2008 a coalition of publishers sued the Georgia State University for copyright infringement. To be more exact, the librarians at GSU had been copying and handing out to students material that was published by these publishers. The complaint covered 99 different incidents where the GSU librarians copied and shared content that had at one point been purchased by GSU (or another library). Note that the librarians weren't pirates; they were operating under the fair use exception to US copyright laws, namely the one covering academic uses.

I had been following this case ever since it first came across my radar last spring, but it only just now came to fruition.

Judge Orinda Evans's decision consists of a 350 page brief which you can find here (PDF). It's far too long for even me to have read already, but the short answer is that Judge Evans found that the vast majority of the 99 examples listed in the original complaint were not in fact copyright infringement. The librarians were correct in believing that their activities were allowed by the fair use exception.

This decision affects far more than just what a few librarians were doing.  The fair use exceptions debated in the lawsuit owe their existence more to court decisions and legal theory than they do to the laws which have been passed by Congress. Had this lawsuit gone the way the publishers wanted, it would likely have affected the very concept of fair use. At the least, institutions everywhere would have been forced to reevaluate their activities. This lawsuit was so far ranging that I think it would not have been out of the question for libraries to go so far as to remove photocopiers from public access (out of fear of liability).

Now, I've been following the case  but I have not posted on it. This case was complex enough that I think it requires a legal scholar to fully explain it, so I will direct you to experts like the blog Scholarly Communications @ Duke.

But this might be new to some, so here is a list of past coverage that I found useful. Note that it is in chronological order.

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: He's here to chew bubble gum and fix broken websites, and he is all out of bubble gum. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills at the drop of a hat. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.

6 Comments

  1. […] The Digital Reader: Back in 2008 a coalition of publishers sued the Georgia State University for copyright […]

    Reply
  2. Andrys14 May, 2012

    Very interesting, Nate !

    Reply
  3. […] The article mentioned that there would be a decision in several weeks but it extended into a year-long deliberation by the judge, Orinda Evans. Her final 350 page ruling is posted courtesy of Nancy Sims‘ at the University of Minnesota if you want to read the full document. For a good review of the background of this case, starting in 2008, see Hoffelder’s May 13 post. […]

    Reply
  4. […] The article mentioned that there would be a decision in several weeks but it extended into a year-long deliberation by the judge, Orinda Evans. Her final 350 page ruling (pdf) is posted courtesy of Nancy Sims‘ at the University of Minnesota if you want to read the full document. For a good review of the background of this case, starting in 2008, see Hoffelder’s May 13 post. […]

    Reply
  5. Doug14 May, 2012

    It’s easy to get carried away about this. It’s a relatively straightforward copyright-vs-fair use lawsuit. In the US, fair use ultimately *must* be decided in court, so these lawsuits happen. The reason the decision is so lengthy is that each alleged infringement must be considered individually.

    From a quick scan, most of the instances were allowed as fair use because it was a university doing the copying, *and* the copies were for class use, *and* it was non-fiction academic material, *and* the portion of the work that was copied was quite small (usually one chapter), *and* no book sales were lost, *and* digital-excerpt sales were either unavailable or the losses on sales of digital excerpts were minimal. Only the last part weighed against Fair Use for those cases.

    A surprising number of the claims were dismissed because there was no showing of copyright infringement in the first place. Either the publisher failed to provide paperwork showing that they had the rights to publish the specific chapter in question (oops), or failed to show that the work was even copyrighted (oops again), or there was no evidence that the copies were ever distributed. Sloppy work by the plaintiff’s counsel, if you ask me.

    The ones that went against the University were ones with more than one chapter being copied:
    * Claim 11: Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research 3e: four chapters
    * Claim 16: Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research 2e: two chapters
    * Claim 22: Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research 3e: seven chapters
    * Claim 72: The Power Elite: two chapters
    * Claim 74: Utilization-Focused Evaluation: two chapters
    The first three all involved the same professor.

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  6. […] Court of Appeals has issued its ruling in Cambridge University Press et. al. v. Patton, the 2008 copyright infringement lawsuit which is otherwise known as “the Georgia State library […]

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