Since the ruling from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the Georgia State copyright case came out two weeks ago, most commentators have come to the same conclusions. It is a mostly negative ruling, in which publishers actually lost a lot of what they were fighting for. Georgia State also lost, in the sense that the case is not over for them and they are no longer assured of being reimbursed for their attorney’s fees and court costs, as Judge Evans had originally ordered. But apart from those parties to the case, has the library community lost by this decision, or gained? Once again, what we have gained is mostly negative — we know that we do not have to strictly observe the 1976 Classroom Copying Guidelines, we know that the cases involving commercially-produced course packs do not dictate the fair use result for e-reserves, we know that 10% or one chapter is not a bright line rule. But there is little benefit in knowing how NOT to make fair use decisions; it is easy to see why one commentator has pled for bright line rules.
One affirmative point we can take from the case is that we know we still can, and must, do item-by-item analyses to make fair use decisions. But what exactly should the process for those decisions look like?
As Brandon Butler from American University has pointed out, the decision-making processes will be different when we are assessing uses for teaching that are transformative versus those, like e-reserves, that are not. We still have a good deal of freedom when the use is transformative — when the original material becomes part of a new expression, a new meaning, or a new purpose. And this is important for a great deal of scholarship and teaching. We should not lose sight of this important application of fair use, or assume, incorrectly, that the 11th Circuit ruling creates new limits on transformative fair use.
But when we must make decisions about digital course readings, we need to apply the “old-fashioned” four factor test. What does it look like after the Appeals Court ruling? I am afraid it has gotten pretty muddy:
The first fair use factor — the purpose and character of the use — continues to favor fair use whenever that use is undertaken by a non-profit educational institution. If a commercial intermediary is involved, as was the situation in the course pack cases, this is no longer true. But where there is no profit being made and the user is the educational institution itself, the first factor supports a claim of fair use. And that is where the clarity ends.
The second factor — the nature of the original — can go either way, depending on the specifics of the work involved. Is it more factual or interpretive? This is a judgment call, and one which librarians may be hard-pressed to make when processing a number of e-reserve requests in a discipline they are unfamiliar with. The good news is that the Court said that this factor is relatively unimportant, so the safest course may be to consider this factor neutral; call it a draw — at least where the item is not clearly creative — and move on.
On the third factor we thought we had a rule, even if many of us didn’t like it — 10% or one chapter was the amount that Judge Evans said was “decidedly small” and therefore OK for fair use for digital course readings. The bad news is that we no longer have that rule. The good news is that we no longer have that rule. The 11th Circuit panel wanted a more nuanced approach, that balances amount with the other factors and especially looks at how appropriate the amount used is in relation to the educational purpose. When the other factors line up in favor of fair use, this approach could well allow more than 10%. If the other factors tend to disfavor fair use, only a much shorter portion might be permissible. It is just very hard, after this ruling, to have clear standards about the amount that is usable, and that makes things difficult for day-to-day decisions.
With the fourth factor — impact on the market for the original — the 11th Circuit made things even more unclear. The panel actually affirmed the lower court in its analysis of this factor, emphasizing that it is permissible to take into account the availability of a license for the specific use as part of evaluating this factor. So if a license for a digital excerpt is unavailable, does that mean this factor favors fair use, as Judge Evans said? Maybe, but the 11th Circuit added two complications. First, it said that the Judge should have included the importance of license income to the value of the work in her fourth factor reasoning, rather than treating it as an additional consideration for breaking “ties.” Second, they said that the fourth factor should have more weight in non-transformational settings. How are we to put these instructions into practice? Libraries do not have access to publishers’ accounts, as the judge did, so we cannot assess the importance of licensing income (nor can we trust publishers to give us straight answers about that importance). And what does more weight mean? If there is no digital license available, does more weight on this factor mean more room for fair use, perhaps of a larger excerpt? Again, maybe. But it also seems to mean that where such a license is available, even 10% or one chapter might be too much for fair use.
How does one swim in water that is this muddy? The answer, of course, is very carefully. We must keep on making those decisions, and we do have space to do so. The fair use checklist, by the way, received a relatively sympathetic description from the 11th Circuit, but not a definite embrace. At this point, my best advice is to keep on doing what we have been doing, thinking carefully about each situation and making a responsible decision. I would recommend a somewhat more conservative approach, perhaps, than I might have done three weeks ago, especially when a license for a digital excerpt is available. But the bottom line is that the situation is not much different than we have always known it to be, there is just a little more mud in the water.