Copyright Confusion: A Storm in the Forecast

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An article in today’s New York Times (online) by Katie Hafner summarizes a lawsuit brought by three academic publishers against Georgia State University’s appropriation of their content for digital course reading packets. It states, in part:

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.

…Indeed, as the printed word is put in digital form, holding onto rights seems to many like climbing up the slippery sides of a glass. The case centers on so-called course packs, compilations of reading materials from various books and journals. The lawsuit contends that in many cases, professors are providing students with multiple chapters of a given work, in violation of the “fair use” provision of copyright law. The publishers are seeking an order that the defendants secure permissions and pay licensing fees to the copyright owners.

Our own library is preparing to launch an institutional repository where digital content will be kept and made available to students/faculty/public depending on the nature of the work and its copyright status. This the very reason why I will be attending a conference on copyright management and libraries later this month at Ball State University up in Indiana. It appears to be a helpful conference, but theme is almost too corny even to mention. Librarians can really be a ridiculous bunch, but we appear to be among the few who are pushing the use of bleeding-edge technological advances for the legal dissemination of information. And yet Georgia State gets sued. Another half-dozen or so libraries have revised their policies for copyright management (which were likely fairly detailed already) in response to publishers’ concerns in the last year.

When will publishers learn that the availability and accessibility of information is directly tied to its usage? When was the last time you bought a music CD without listening to part of it online or at Barnes and Noble first? Similarly, in my humble and often incorrect opinion, the NIV translation of the Bible outsold the NASB translation because the NASB people were more restrictive in their licensing rights for use in publications, programs, curricula, etc… Again, accessibility is directly tied to usage in today’s world.

Admittedly, I do not know the details of this lawsuit. Nor am I acquainted with the copyright policies of Georgia State’s libraries. I do, however, plan on keeping an eye on this lawsuit. It is likely not as clear-cut as the NYT story reports it, nor is it as clear-cut as commercial copyright violations. Copyright law and its application to academic libraries is increasingly murky. And I have been tasked with our own library’s copyright clearance for reserves, e-reserves, and potentially for helping to navigate this issue with our forthcoming digital repository. I just finished revising our copyright policies last year and now I feel like I should do it again because the application of the law keeps changing. If we as librarians cannot keep up with it, how can we expect faculty to understand? Copyright conference, here I come.

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