Two interesting lawsuits came to my attention recently, one decided in February by the federal district court in Los Angeles and the other just filed in the district court in Atlanta. The new case involves a challenge by three publishers to the electronic reserves practices at Georgia State University, so it has direct relevance for many of the readers of this blog. But taken together with the LA case, there is a fascinating question raised about whether it should be possible to sue state institutions for violations of federal law.
The case out of California, Marketing Information Masters v. the Board of Trustees of California State University reaches a rather predictable result in dismissing an allegation of copyright infringement on the grounds that states and state institutions are immune from lawsuits by private individuals and corporations. Congress has tried to change this doctrine in regard to copyright by adopting section 511 of the Copyright Act in 1994, but the courts keep brushing that provision aside. William Patry comments negatively on this trend here, while Georgia Harper partially defends it here. But what is really interesting is that the district court in Marketing Information Masters allowed the suit to go forward after dropping Cal State as a defendant by leaving intact the claim against the specific university employee named in his individual capacity. Pretty frightening stuff for state university faculty.
If we now flip forward to the suit filed yesterday against Georgia State University, we have to wonder if the same sovereign immunity problem will lead to dismissal. The four university officials are named only in their official capacity; no one claims they actually infringed copyright themselves. So how will this case avoid being dismissed? The answer seems to be in one of the few exceptions to sovereign immunity, the doctrine that one can sue state officials in their official capacity if one is seeking only injunctive relief — an order to stop the infringing activity — rather than money damages (the Ex parte Young doctrine). The complaint filed against GSU takes exactly this tack, seeking only an injunction to stop the activity going forward, not damages for alleged infringement in the past. On that basis, we might actually get a decision about the meat of the claim, that electronic reserves are almost always infringing if the universities do not pay for permission.
This claim, if successful, would increase student costs for educational materials dramatically as schools would have to pass on the costs for permissions in addition to the money already spent when they financed the original research, purchased the resultant articles and then, often, purchased them again in digital format. If publishers get their way a fourth payment would be required, and it would come straight out of students’ pockets.
The complaint against Georgia State acknowledges fair use, as it must, but it relegates it to a tiny fraction of situations, none of which can realistically be expected to occur on a modern college campus. In effect, this is an attempt to enforce judicially a “pay-per-use” model of content distribution. The real irony is that it is justified as an attempt to remedy a “free-rider” problem — the claim that universities are appropriating the work of publishers and authors without just compensation. This claim is patently absurd, given the amount of money university libraries invest in published resources, but it is downright offensive when the real issue is clarified. Publishers here are themselves the free-riders, obtaining a huge amount of academic content from the universities and their faculty without compensation. The GSU complaint cites as an irony the fact that one of the professors who is cited as infringing the copyright of Sage Publishing has himself published three articles in Sage journals. The gall of the man! Nowhere is it mentioned that he was required to give up those articles without payment for the privilege of publishing with a company that is now suing his employer to recover even more money for those freely donated articles.
A little bit of attention to the economics of scholarly publishing quickly undermines the claim in this complaint that, without permission fees for electronic reserves, the incentive system of copyright will be undermined. No monetary incentive currently exists for the vast majority of academic publishing, from the point of view of faculty, yet academics keep writing. There is no evidence at all that this well of free content will suddenly go dry if publishers are not able to collect an additional income stream from that well. If this suit goes forward in spite of sovereign immunity, that should be the issue on which the court focuses its attention.
Policy on Electronic Course Content
For help deciding whether course content in Blackboard or some other digital form is fair use or requires copyright permission, consult this policy document adopted by the Academic Council in February 2008.
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