The New York Times is reporting that three publishers are suing Georgia State University in what appears to be the first suit of its kind. The publishers allege that electronic compilations of scanned materials posted on the school website for distribution to students violates "fair use" and requires licensing.
Fair use, in copyright terms, allows educators to reproduce and use portions of copyrighted materials for instructional purposes. A set of guidelines can be found here, but essentially, giving students a handout of a few important pages is fine; copying the book (or several chapters) is not. More importantly, if students no longer need to buy the book (if they would have been likely to buy it in the first place), then this also represents a violation of fair use.
While this is not the first lawsuit over course packs, it is the first over course packs distributed electronically.
“Georgia State’s activity seems identical with Michigan Document Services’ activity,” said Susan P. Crawford, a visiting professor at Yale Law School, [referring to a precedent-setting case involving printed course packs].
But she pointed out that unlike Kinko’s and Michigan Document Services, Georgia State was not making money from the electronic course packs.
Yet, she added: “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.”
No clear solution exists for this widespread practice, nor is it clear what precedent this case will set. What is clear is that textbook publishers are beginning to face many of the same challenges as the music and film industries.
Other experts wonder if such a lawsuit might be premature, emphasizing that in many ways it is too early to settle on a business model for the distribution of digital materials.
“In academic publishing, we need to find the digital services people really want,” said Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library based in San Francisco. “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."