Where does FERPA fit?

When I wrote my last blog post about contract law and the issue of licensing student work for public distribution, several people asked me about FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.  Basically, the questions amounted to this: Don’t we need to think about more than just the copyright licensing issue when we put student work in public, or when we require students to do their work in public?  And the answer, of course, is “yes.”  That previous post was focused on the licensing question, and made only a passing reference to potential privacy issues.  Here, I would like to look more closely at the issue of FERPA and student work in public, while acknowledging that I am not a FERPA expert.

The examples I gave about the types of assignments that might be made public, or might be done in public from the start, offer an interesting hierarchy regarding FERPA, I think.  So I want to address them in three categories.  First, things like theses, final papers and honors projects that an institution might want to put in its repository, then the issue of art exhibitions, and finally FERPA concerns when students work directly in a public forum.

The conversation started around the idea that a school might want to put final papers from a class, or perhaps capstone or honors papers, into its open access repository.  I noted that, as a matter of copyright law, it was probably enough to inform the students of this intent in the syllabus, so that subsequently handing in the work form an implied license.  I still think this is enough to deal with the issue of copyright, but it is not enough from the perspective of FERPA.  Rather, FERPA requires a written, dated and signed waiver for  educational records, such as these types of assignments, that are “in our keeping,” to be made public.  So for a final paper or project that is handed in to faculty and then released to the public through a repository, a document waiving FERPA in regard to that paper or project must be obtained.  This written document could also serve as an explicit copyright license, but, as I say, it is necessary as a waiver of FERPA, while copyright can be licensed by implication.

The situation is more ambiguous when we ask about art projects that are handed in with the expectation that they will be part of a public exhibition.  Once again, what I said about an implied copyright license for public display applies, but it seems like the FERPA waiver is also often implied.  On the surface there seems to be no difference between the art project handed in for a grade and the final paper or honors thesis.  We know we cannot put out a stack of papers and invite others, even other students, to look through them.  Yet, with art exhibitions, schools seldom obtain FERPA waivers; they simply hang the works, which surely are also “educational records in our keeping,” on the walls of a gallery and invite the public in to look.  My friend Stephen McDonald, who is General Counsel for the Rhode Island School of Design and one of higher education’s foremost authorities on FERPA, often speaks of an “implied pedagogical exception” to FERPA, and I think that construct might apply here.  The Family Policy Compliance Office at the Department of Education, which oversees FERPA compliance, has said fairly often that FERPA is not intended to interfere with ordinary pedagogical practice.  And they have been clear that putting a thesis or dissertation on a library shelf, which also involves public access to an educational record, is not a problem.  Perhaps the art works can be thought of in a similar way.  And it may be important that art is made for display; that is what its creators expect, and inclusion in an institutional art exhibit is desirable for them.

So in this example, it seems that both a copyright license, for public display of an art work, and a waiver of FERPA privacy rights are being implied.  I think it is important that we separate copyright and FERPA in our minds, and think about each of them carefully.  But it is interesting to see how they diverge and converge.

Finally, what do we make of those assignments where students are asked to do their work in public right from the start, either by creating a web page, developing a blog, posting a video to YouTube, or having a class discussion on Twitter?  This is not an abstract question; our faculty are making such assignments all the time.  A library school student I know recently told me that she elected not to sign up for a class because of a requirement that each student post a specified number of tweets.  Once again, I think that the copyright situation is addressed by an implied license.  But what of FERPA? The first question is really whether these kinds of materials are educational records as defined by FERPA in the first place.  The issue is whether the “records” are ever “in our keeping” when the student creates them directly on a public platform.  It may well be that FERPA is not implicated at all in this scenario, based on a strict reading of its definition of an educational record.  And, of course, that reading is entirely congruent with what student expectations must be in this situation; they would hardly expect privacy when their work is a webpage or a set of tweets. In my opinion, however, this does not entirely settle the matter.

Even if FERPA does not apply, some of its principles, based on the idea of protecting our students, are important and should be accounted for.  A couple of years ago I was asked precisely this question, and those interested can read this blog post on the HASTAC site that was written by Professor Cathy Davidson, formerly of Duke and now at the CUNY Graduate Center, based on advice I gave about this type of assignment.  To summarize that advice here, I suggested three important steps to respect student privacy even if FERPA was not implicated by the assignment to work in a public forum.  These steps are, I believe congruent with what I have been saying about implied licenses throughout these two posts.  First, students should know about the requirement in advance; they should be informed by the syllabus while they still have an option not to take the class.  Second, provision should be made for students to participate pseudonymously, a step that would clearly resolve any FERPA problem that might exist.  And, finally, I suggested that provision be made, at least in the instructors own mind, for an alternative assignment that could be available to the student who really needs to take the course but, for whatever reason, does not want to do his or her work in public.  Of course, instructors are entitled to assess the validity of those reasons, consider the pedagogical benefit from public work, and evaluate any proffered reasons why a pseudonym would not be a sufficient solution.

I actually suspect that the recalcitrant student who simply does not want class work done in public is a vanishing breed.  Most of our students today are very comfortable with having their writing, art works, and opinions on the Web.  But when they are not, we should take steps to accommodate their discomfort without compromising the pedagogical value we believe is behind the assignment.  Indeed, the fundamental conviction behind all of this extended discussion about student copyright and FERPA rights is to suggest that these legal regimes can be managed in such a way that students are respected while still taking advantage of the pedagogical opportunities that the digital environment offers.  Neither of these legal structures needs, or should be allowed, to make the Internet a “no go zone” for student work; they just call on us to think carefully and respectfully about that work, and the students who create it.

The truth about contracts

The impetus behind this post is a specific discussion that took place on an e-mail list.  The question under discussion was how to license student work for deposit in an institutional repository.  At one point I said that a license could be created by a simple line in the syllabus for a course that said that certain designated works would be put in the repository, followed by the “performance” (used in contract law to refer to conduct related to the bargain) of handing in those works.  This claim, which I thought was innocuous, was disputed.

The whole discussion reminded me that there are some serious misapprehensions about contracts, contract law, and licensing in the academic world.  So rather than continue the debate on the list, I thought I would offer some basic truths about contracts and licenses in this space.  That way my musings only clutter the in-boxes of those who subscribed, rather than everyone on the list.  And the debate, if needed, can continue, because the comments will be open, as they are for all posts on this blog.  I should add that what I say here is based on U.S. law, and mostly on the Uniform Commercial Code, which has been adopted into the commercial law governing contracts in every U.S. state.

So let’s start at the beginning.  A contract is simply a promise that the law will enforce.  The law does not enforce all promises, but a promise need not be very formal to be a binding contract.  All that is needed is an offer, an acceptance of that offer, and some “consideration,” which simply means that each party must get something out of the bargain.

But there is more to say about contracts.  One of the most important points is that contracts are business documents, intended to accomplish specific goals shared by the parties.  Legal language is less important to a contract than a clear expression of the intent of the parties — what they want the contract to accomplish in their relationship.  Lawyers are actually not the most important people in the drafting of a contract, the parties are, because they know what they want the contract to do.  The cleanest or most formal legal language in the world is useless if it fails to express those intentions.

Perhaps because we so often deal with obscure and lengthy database licenses from vendors with lots of lawyers on staff, librarians tend to think of contracts as big, formal and very serious, even frightening, documents.  But a contract can be very simple, and it need not even be a document.  If my neighbor comes to my door and offers to cut my lawn for $30, and I say OK, we have formed a contract at that moment.  Note what the “consideration” is — a promise to cut my lawn and a promise to pay $30.  Promises are the most common type of consideration in a contract, but an offer for a contract can be accepted by performance.  Suppose I asked my neighbor if he would cut my lawn for $30 and he said nothing.  But later that same day, he does cut my lawn.  I owe him $30 and the law would enforce the promise because my neighbor accepted my offer in a timely way by the act of cutting the lawn — there was an offer, acceptance by performance, and consideration on both sides; I got a neater lawn and he got my enforceable promise to pay $30.

Another reason librarians might think that contracts are formal and serious is because they hear so often that contracts “trump” copyright law.  Since copyright law is a very important federal law, contracts must be an even more serious matter to trump it.  But, actually, we allow contracts to supersede copyright law not because they are so “big” but because they are small.  U.S. Copyright law binds every person who is subject to its jurisdiction, but a contract binds only the parties who agree to it.  A contract is a “private law” arrangement by which two parties (or sometimes more) rearrange their own relationship.  Within that relationship, we will allow parties to agree to give up various rights — under copyright, for example.  They could even surrender their free speech rights in some limited cases.  This is not because contracts are “stronger” but because they are “weaker” then other parts of the law — they only rearrange the rights of those who agree to them.

One way we can tell that contracts are “weaker” in this sense than the law that binds all citizens is that the risk associated with failing to fulfill a contractual promise is usually much lower than it is for a violation of public law.  Contract damages are generally determined by the intended relationship expressed in the contract.  In my example above, if I “breach” the contract by not paying my neighbor, the law could force me to give him “the benefit of the bargain,” which in that case was $30.  In most situations, that would be it; there are no statutory damages for contracts as there are in copyright law, for example, and the goal of contract “remedies” is usually either just to see that the parties get what they bargained for, or, at least, to put them back in the positions they were in before the contract was formed.  As a lawyer, I would never advise someone to do something I believed was an infringement of copyright, but it is possible to imagine situations where breaching a contract could make sense; the classic example is where a business person can make a greater profit if they get out of the contractual relationship even if they have to pay damages.  Such a situation is called an “efficient breach of contract.”

One final general point about contracts before we turn to licenses specifically.  A contract is often “implied” by the way the parties behave.  In my example above we saw that a contract could be formed when the person who received my offer simply acted on it; his acceptance was implied by performance.  Only a very few contracts must be in writing, and they are specified by law.  The copyright law tells us, for example, that transfers of copyright and exclusive licenses must be in writing (see section 210(d)), but non-exclusive licenses can certainly be implied.  Most states require that sales of real property be in writing, through laws referred to as “Statute(s) of Fraud,” but it is quite clear that many other contracts can be oral, or even evidenced by some kind of action.  “Shrink wrap” licenses for software are a good example, where opening and using the product is a sufficient indication that the purchaser has accepted the terms of use (see ProCD, Inc. v. Zeidenberg, 86 F.3d 1447 (7th Cir. 1996).

In the copyright realm, implied licenses are actually quite common.  A license, remember, is simply “a revocable permission to commit some act that would otherwise be unlawful” (from Black’s Law Dictionary).  Note that a license is presumed to be revocable unless there is explicit agreement otherwise; for this reason, an implied license is always revocable.  But, as I say, they are very common.  The example we all rely on most, I dare say, is the implied license created whenever someone puts a page up on the Web.  When I look at that page, I am making an apparently unauthorized copy in the cache of my computer, which looks like an infringement.  But courts around the world have recognized that it would be absurd to allow a webpage author to sue anyone who looked at the page for infringement, and have instead found an implied license in the act of uploading a page.  There is an interesting discussion of a case that tested the limits of an implied license here, on Forbes.com.

A license is not always a contract, but most are.  In the case of an implied license to view a web page, one could argue that there is offer and acceptance, but it does not seem that there is consideration, something that each side gets out of the bargain.  So it may be a non-contractual license, but it is a license all the same.

When we turn, finally, to the case of a syllabus that informs students that certain work they hand in will be made publicly accessible through an institutional repository, I think we can now see that all of the elements of a license, and even a contractual license, are present.  There is an offer made — in exchange for a grade and credit in this course, you will give the school a license for IR deposit.  And when the work is handed in, there is a performance from which acceptance of that offer is readily implied.  In this case, I also think there is consideration, since the student gets that grade and credit she bargained for (she could, of course, have rejected the offer by dropping the course, or she could even have counter-offered by asking for different terms), and the school gets a license.  This is a valid contract that creates a license upon which the school can rely.

To say that the license is valid is not the same as saying it is wise to do this.  It also ignores some other issues.  A university might decide, for example, that putting work in a repository implicates privacy rights and therefore requires an explicit writing.  But as a contract matter, the license is real and reliable.  It is presumptively revocable, as explained above.  So the situation might arise where the student decides she now longer wants her undergraduate essay on the web and requests that it be removed.  In that situation I would first want to talk with the student and see if we could find an agreement that would leave the terms of the course assignment intact.  If we could not reach such an agreement, I would suggest that the school should remove the work, because once the license is revoked the continued distribution could be an infringement of the student’s copyright.  But in that instance, the school is then entitled to consider whether the student has met the requirements for credit.  If public distribution is considered a sufficiently important part of the pedagogy, the school could conclude that credit for the course should be revoked. This is simply acknowledging the mutual bargain that exists in all contracts.

As I argued on the list, this form of implied license is not legally different from many teaching strategies that implicate copyright.  Suppose an art class tells students (either orally or in the syllabus) that their final projects will be included in a public departmental exhibition.  Copyright is implicated, and a license is implied when the final project is handed in.  The same would be true if a class assignment required students to create a web page, post a video to YouTube, or have a class discussion via Twitter.  The point here is not to recommend or condemn any of these strategies, but merely to explicate the law that would support all of them.

The truth about contracts is that we deal with them every day.  They need not be formal, and they need not intimidate us.  They are simply the mechanism we use to arrange our relationships in a great many situations, including teaching situations that implicate the copyrights held by students.

Paying the bills

Open access is not free.  By saying that up front, I hope to confound some of the more extreme critics of the open access movement, who sometimes pretend that all OA supporters are dreamy-eyed and woolly-headed librarians who imagine that all information “wants” to be free.  So I start from the premise that open access costs money, but I do immediately need to qualify that statement.  By definition, open access does not charge the consumers of information any fee for access.  It is free in that sense, but not in the sense that there are no costs involved in producing the works or making them freely available.

Of course, for most academic work, the majority of the “first copy” costs are already paid for outside the subscription system.  Taxpayer money, research grants or private university funds support the research underlying scholarship, as well as the time of the authors who produce it.  The work of reviewing and improving both articles and books is also borne by these sources, in large part.  Commercial publishers, then, “free ride” on this investment, which is a sign of a failure in the market.

One truth that lies behind much of the open access movement is simply that there are more efficient ways to produce scholarship than the way it has been done in the past.  Digital communications have brought down the cost of other types of content, but publishers continue to raise prices, arguing, improbably, that there are no significant savings in the transition from print to online distribution.

So here is a simple assertion — we must find ways to pay for open access to scholarship, but simply paying traditional commercial publishers to do it for us would just replicate a system whose failure in the online environment is all too obvious.  Gold, or hybrid gold, open access is NOT a solution IF it is expected to simply replace subscription revenue and does not provide an opportunity for a more realistic assessment of costs.

There is a really nice article by Kevin Hawkins from the University of North Texas Libraries about “How We Pay for Publishing” in the latest issue of “Against the Grain.”  I don’t think the issue is openly available, but there is a pre-print of Kevin’s article in the UNT Digital Library here.  The article is a concise overview of “how we got into this mess” and “how might we get out.”  Kevin concisely summarizes the various proposals that would shift library investments from the consumption side of the research process — where we simply buy the products that are sold only to a limited set of buyers/subscribers — to the production side, where library funding helps support the creation of knowledge products that are available to all.  As Hawkins points out, there is a potential free-rider problem here as well, and he writes about how different possible models can address it.  When he turns to the impact of these models on university presses, he envisions a more mission-driven view of those organizations that would recognize that it is unrealistic to expect them to pay for themselves at the end of each fiscal year.  Instead, we should look closely at costs and benefits, recognizing that increased access is a benefit, and support university presses as well as other organizations that are prepared to experiment with new models for more efficient production and broader access.

Costs, of course, are the elephant in the living room whenever improving access is under discussion.  In a recent blog post on open access books and double dipping, Martin Eve of the Open Library of the Humanities questions the claim that a particular publisher must recoup $17,500 to make a single monograph OA.  Martin’s concern is that the publisher in question may be “double-dipping” by demanding the full-cost of the publication as an up-front OA charge and selling print copies as well.  It seems that the OA charge could be reduced by the amount earned through print or e-book sales, just as journal subscription costs ought to come down as author’s select “open choice” options.  The fact that neither reduction is occurring, at least in a wide-spread way, is a sign that we need to ask much harder questions about the actual cost of production as we make this transition to supporting OA on the production side.  The study announced by Ithaka last month should help us get a better handle on the true cost of publishing a monograph.

Those nations that use central funding to support open access publication — and there are a growing number of those — especially need to look at costs to be sure they are not wasting money.  In this guest post on the Digital Science blog, Jan Erik Frantsvag from Norway considers the path that would simply pay article processing charges (APCs) to commercial publishers in order to achieve open access, and lays out some concerns.  Most especially, he explains why the Norwegian Research Council has decided that the funds offered to researchers to fulfill their open access mandate may not be spent on hybrid publications, where only certain articles are made open access after a fee is paid, while a subscription fee is still charged for access to the entire journal.  Frantsvag cites three concerns that caused the Norwegian government to reject this hybrid model.  First, because it double-dips, as described above.  Second, because hybrid journal APCs are higher than those for other OA publications, raising precisely this issue of cost that we have been discussing.  As more and more government funds are used to pay APCs, it seems likely that we will see more probing questions about cost being asked.  Indeed, if U.S. universities are going to develop campus-based funds to support article process charges, we ought to be asking the same questions, and using caps on our funds to encourage more reasonable APCs.  The third reason Frantsvag cites is simply that money for open access should support innovation and experimentation, not simply go to keeping the old business model afloat.

In each of these examples we see that efforts to encourage open access and find new models for supporting research must necessarily look at how much the production of knowledge products — monographs, journal articles, digital visualizations, etc. — actually costs.  In the past these costs have been obscure to universities, hidden in the steady upward spiral of subscription expenses.  But now we are seeing signs that the academic community is beginning to do what it probably should have done long ago — look closely at the actual costs and begin to evaluate the money we are willing to invest in each form of scholarly dissemination.

Who should we trust?

A recent discussion on an e-mail list, about university open access policies, raised the issue of trust.  The participants correctly noted how important it is that there be some level of trust between faculty, administrators and the library (which is usually charged with managing an open access repository once a policy is in place) in order for an open access policy to be adopted and successfully implemented.  Inevitably, the comments brought out the irony that faculty authors often seem very suspicious about administrator motives when debating an OA policy — fearing that someone is trying to “steal their stuff” — yet are perfectly willing to give that “stuff,” in its entirety and for no remuneration, to commercial publishers.  And they do this even though it is obvious that commercial publishers do not share the fundamental values of academia about research and access.

When one looks a little deeper, it is easy to see, I think, that academic authors do not really trust the commercial publishers either; we hear lots of wry comments about how absurd the current system is, followed by a shoulder-shrug expressing resignation.  It is absurd, but it is what we have got.  “Trust” is probably the wrong word for what authors feel as they give away their work.

Perhaps it really is just resignation in the face of how things have been done for hundreds of years.  There was a fine column published recently in the Educause review that encapsulates this scholarly stagnation with a story about a Buddhist monastery where the practice of tying up the monastery’s cat, begun because it disrupted the abbot’s lessons to novices, continued for centuries, through many successive abbots and cats, until it came to be invested with a false sense of significance.  Mark Edington makes the case that we have become unreasonably wedded to a system that once had considerable utility for a set of circumstances that no longer exist, and are reluctant to embrace the changes needed for our new environment.  There certainly is an element of “tying up the cat” in our continued dependence on commercial publishers and our willingness to pay them to do things that, in many cases, we can now do better and more economically ourselves.  It is simply easier to do what we have always done, and to let the dissemination of scholarship remain in the hands of those who have done it for us for 300 years.

It is not that we exactly trust commercial publishers, nor do we exactly distrust them. We may recognize that the values and goals of the commercial publishing business are different from, and even in conflict with, the best interests of scholarly authors and of scholarship itself.  Perfectly nice people, working to advance their own interests as best they can, come in to conflict as the conditions for research and teaching change. And a real ambivalence is created because of how interwoven the parts of the academic enterprise are.  More than just inertia is a work; important aspects of the academic enterprise remain interlocked with traditional forms of publication.

Most obviously, the rewards system in higher education, which by definition has worked well for many of our most influential faculty, is highly entwined with traditional journal and monograph publishing. In the digital age, when we can actually learn so much more relevant information about the uses made of an individual scholarly article, it may be absurd to continue to look at impact factor and the “brand name” of the journal as evaluative measures, but the systems we have built around those factors are well entrenched.  Change seems inevitable, but it will be slow.  One of my major concerns is the cost of this snails’ pace, and the danger that “the usual suspects” will succeed in co-opting the new opportunities and convincing us to pay them for open access and alt-metrics, when we should look for ways to save money and preserve more local control over these new, digital opportunities.  An example of this danger can be found in the “Open Access Roundtable” sponsored by the Copyright Clearance Center that warned about the complexity of article processing charges.  The CCC, of course, sees itself as a solution to that problem, while the role of universities is simply to pay others, through them, for the benefits of open access.

Late last year Jason Schmitt, a professor at a small liberal arts college, posted a column in the HuffPost called “Academic Journals: The Most Profitable Obsolete Technology in History.”  He makes a good point.  It seems odd that academia, which should be in the forefront of leading managed change, should be propping up a technology that has outlived its usefulness.  We would laugh at people who continued to buy buggy whips well into the automobile era, yet we, as academics and librarians, are in danger of becoming those very laughing-stocks. Schmitt focuses on ideas for change laid out by Sam Gershman and John Bohannan and stresses the societal obligation we have to make the knowledge created in our colleges and universities more accessible.

Of course, trust is a key element in moving toward the open access future that Schmitt, like so many others, envisions.  The systems we are moving toward will not be simple; it will involve multiple and diverse business models, and accommodation for lots of different needs.  We will need to decide what parts of the scholarly communication system we can take over on our own campuses, where we should focus collective funding, and what elements might still be most reasonably “outsourced” to commercial firms.  These decisions will be difficult, and different on each campus.  At each stage we will need to decide who we trust; who are the right partners for this part of the journey.

The key to those trusted relationships, I think, is common values.  As we move toward a more open future for scholarly communication, we need to focus on what are the best interests of scholarship and of individual scholars.  The best way to overcome distrust between faculty and administrators, for example, is to ground the conversation on shared or complementary needs and goals — faculty want maximum attention and impact for their work, and administrators want to build and protect the reputation of the institution; open access, implemented thoughtfully, can bring those goals into alignment. Libraries, which are traditionally highly-trusted entities on campus, must keep their focus where, I hope, it has always been, on making teaching and research easier and better.  In all of our conversation about changing the system of scholarly communications, we should keep that goal as our foundation.  Even more importantly, we need to “walk the talk.”  In our decisions about how we spend our money, especially, we should be guide by, and be seen to be guided by, those best interests of our scholars and our institutions. I firmly believe that those interests will lead us, by the shortest reasonable route, to our open future.

After another defeat, what will GSU publishers do in 2015?

Back in October the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling in the Georgia State copyright infringement suit brought by three publishers and the Copyright Clearance Center to try to end reliance on fair use for course readings that are digitized and made available to students in a closed online forum.  As has been widely reported, that decision looked like a win for publishers, in that it vacated the lower court decision that largely favored Georgia State University, and it remanded the case back to the District Court for further proceedings.   But what looked like a win was very dissatisfying to the publisher plaintiffs — Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Sage Publishing.  In the course of the opinion, all of the radical changes to copyright law that they hoped to advance with the lawsuit — the imposition of the 1976 Classroom Copying guidelines as a maximum limit rather than a safe harbor, the idea that the copy shop cases involving commercial course packs were appropriate precedents for in-house electronic reserves, a move from analysis of individual claims of fair use to a comprehensive impact analysis, and a statement that non-profit educational use did not necessarily favor fair use — were rejected by the Court of Appeals.

The publishers were very unhappy with this decision, even though it gave them the outcome they desired in the specific conflict.  They are looking for a radical realignment of fair use; the actual case is relatively unimportant, I think, compared to this desire to change the landscape so that many more licenses for educational institutions would be required.  So they asked the entire 11th Circuit to rehear the case (en banc) instead of letting the decision of the usual three judge panel stand.  Their petition for rehearing is a wish list of the principles they would like to have govern copyright in academia, which, of course, all point to paying those publishers more money.

On Friday the 11th Circuit rejected this petition for an en banc rehearing, as well as the petition for rehearing filed by GSU.  The Court did not comment on the rejection; they simply denied both petitions, thus leaving the opinion of the Appellate panel as the Court’s final word on the case.

For libraries, this means we are still in the uncertain and murky position I describe back in October.

For the publishers, there are a dwindling number of options left for them:

  1. They can petition the Supreme Court to hear the case.  This is really the only option that is available if the plaintiff publishers still want to fight for the ridiculous arguments they have been championing throughout the six and a half years of this lawsuit, so I will not be surprised if they do this.  I am sure the lawyers representing the publishers are advocating for this; so is the Copyright Clearance Center, in all likelihood, and they are paying the bills.  But the Supreme Court accepts only a tiny fraction of the cases they are asked to consider — the number is less than 4% of cases for which the petitioner has paid the usual filing fees (it is much lower for cases submitted where the plaintiff, usually a prisoner, claims that they cannot pay the costs).  The cases the Supreme Court is most likely to accept are those where there is a split of opinions among the different Circuits of the Court of Appeals, and that is not the case with the GSU opinion.  So this is a long shot for the publishers, but their only option now if they hope to save any of those principles that they have gone to war to establish.
  2. They can seek the rehearing by the District Court that is the point of a remand from the Appeals Court. That hearing must be “consistent” with the analysis in the 11th Circuit ruling, so it is not likely to gain much for the publishers.  The best they can hope for here would be a slightly tighter e-reserves policy at GSU that they could wave under the noses of other universities.  But that would be a victory for them that would feel an awful lot like a loss.
  3. Finally, they could settle the case.  This would be the rational approach, but the plaintiff publishers (or those who are calling the shots for them) have shown little taste for reasonableness.  They have poured a lot of money into fighting to undermine fair use for education, and settling now is probably less sensible, from their perspective, than it would have been months or years ago.  And, to be honest, GSU has little to gain from a settlement at this point; they might just as well wait for further proceedings in the District Court.  A settlement earlier in the case might have given the publishers a lever to use in negotiations with other institutions, but that opportunity faded when the 11th Circuit rejected all of those principles that the publishers were after.  Now they have a much weaker hand.

Overall, I think we will see a petition for a Writ of Certiorari, which is what you file to ask the Supreme Court to consider your case.  I doubt it will be granted, but I expect that 2015 will be a year of tilting at windmills for the publishers in this case.

Does copyright provide shade against Sunshine laws?

There are many situations in which the application of fair use is vitally important.  Educational uses are paramount, of course, and the law of fair use was clearly written with them in mind.  But right up at the top of the list, along with education, should be protecting free speech and supporting governmental transparency. This last value, however, has been put in some doubt by a decision back in August by the Missouri Court of Appeals.  The question, which has arisen in several recent court cases, is whether copyright can be used by a state university to avoid releasing materials that have been requested under the state’s freedom of information, or “Sunshine” laws as they are often called.  The laws are intended to shine light on the workings of government, and these situations where copyright is asserted to prevent the release of records threaten a novel method by which government agencies can avoid public scrutiny.

The cases have been brought by an organization called the National Council on Teacher Quality, or NCTQ, which advocates for tougher evaluation standards for teachers and is sharply critical of many teacher education programs.  The NCTQ has sent requests under numerous state Sunshine laws asking for the syllabi used in various teacher education courses at state universities, and that is where the copyright cases have arisen.  In at least two states the university and/or a teachers union has sought to prevent the release of the requested syllabi by asserting that such documents are the copyrighted property of individual faculty members and that the Sunshine laws do not permit the state to release material when doing so might infringe copyright.

I am coming at this issue slightly backwards, because I was alerted to it by a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education  when, earlier this month, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a decision refusing to release the syllabi because they were protected by copyright.  That decision, handed down in August by the Missouri Court of Appeals, was something of a shock to me; the reasoning is so bizarre and it seems to try so hard to misconstrue the arguments made by the NCTQ that I can only conclude it is result-driven.  That is, the court decided what it wanted to do and then contorted the law to achieve that outcome.  I want to walk through some of the oddities of this decision, then look briefly at a case from Minnesota, decided a year earlier, in August 2013, and pointed out to the Missouri court, that got the situation right, in my opinion, recognizing that fair use can prevent state entities from using copyright to shield themselves from sunshine laws.

Those other cases provide the first illustration of the oddity of the Missouri decision.  The Court of Appeals was presented with several previous cases from other states where copyright was held not to prevent release of materials that were otherwise subject to Sunshine laws.  But the Missouri panel declined to acknowledge those precedents — they were not obligated to do so, to be sure — by arguing that those rulings had never found that copyright “had no application” in such cases.  But that is not what the NCTQ had argued; they offered the precedents to show that copyright had not, in the past, been permitted to shield the government from disclosure.  The Missouri Court of Appeals misconstrued the point and then, based on this misunderstanding, dismissed the cases and did exactly what it had been warned against — turned copyright into a defense against open government.

Later on in the decision there is another instance where the court again appears to willful misunderstand the NCTQ’s arguments in order to get to its desired goal.  When the NCTQl argues that syllabi are widely distributed already, the Court of Appeals claims that this is an argument based on privacy concerns and, as such, inapplicable to a case about copyright.  But it is clear that the NCTQ is arguing a copyright point related to the “market” for syllabi and the potential for harm (minimal) that would result from handing them over for NCTQ research purposes.  In short, this is part of a fair use argument, to which I will return below.

But first we should note one more oddity in the Missouri case, which is not the fault of the Court — the fact that the copyright ownership of the syllabi was never disputed.  Apparently both sides conceded that the faculty members were the copyright holders.  It might have been a better strategy for the NCTQ to raise the issue of work made for hire here and try to claim that the University, an arm of the state, was the copyright holder and therefore not entitled to use its own copyright to impede disclosure under the law.  Apparently the mutual concession on this point was based on the policy at the University of Missouri which said that faculty held their own copyrights, but this policy could easily be challenged (as most such university policies could) on the grounds that they do not meet the standard of “a written instrument signed by [the parties],” which is what the copyright law requires to return a work made for hire to individual ownership.

So here we have a situation where syllabi are widely distributed but, when requested by a private organization with an undeniably political agenda, are held to be the copyrighted property of individual faculty members and therefore excluded from Sunshine law disclosure because they are “protected from disclosure by law.”  This is clearly a ruling that effectively destroys the Sunshine law in Missouri, since most everything requested under it will be the copyright-protected property of someone.  Maybe in a later ruling the courts could make it clear that copyrights held by the state itself do not justify withholding materials from disclosure, but this case does not say that.  And even if that is the state of the law in Missouri, this ruling provides a huge loophole in the Sunshine law that clever agencies will surely find multiple ways to exploit. Such a situation cries out for a comprehensive fair use analysis, and yet the Missouri Court of Appeals declines to undertake one.

Three reasons are advanced by the Court to explain why fair use is unavailing to protect the Sunshine Law from being gutted by copyright claims; all are unavailing, in my opinion:

  1.  First, the Court of Appeals claims that, as a state court, it “lacks authority” to consider the effect of the Federal copyright.  This is clearly nonsense.  State courts regularly consider questions of Federal law when necessary to resolve an underlying state law issue.  The Minnesota case that was pointed out to the Court of Appeals is exactly such an example, which the Missouri panel chose to ignore.  It should be obvious that when the Sunshine exception refers to prohibitions by law, that necessarily means that the state courts will have to deal with Federal laws, and, in fact, the state court here does consider the impact of Federal copyright law.  It just draws up short at the idea of considering fair use.
  2. The Missouri Court of Appeals also asserts that it cannot consider fair use because there is no case of actual infringement before it, and fair use is an affirmative defense that is raised only after a prima facie case has been presented.  This is a silly excuse in the context.  For one thing, the law clearly tells us that fair use is a right, which, like most rights, functions as an affirmative defense in many situations.  But even more fundamentally, the Court of Appeals is agreeing to the claim that the University of Missouri does not have to disclose syllabi because doing so would involve it in potential copyright infringement; how is it possible to then decline to consider the applicability of a potential defense to copyright infringement as part of its analysis?
  3. The Missouri Court of Appeals gets involved in a convoluted consideration of who would be able to assert fair use in this situation, and appears to throw up its hands in despair.  On the one hand, the Court asserts that it cannot consider fair use because it does not know what the use is that NCTQ will make of the syllabi that might be turned over to it.  But, on the other hand, the Court accepts the University’s argument that it is not trying to enforce faculty member’s copyright — which it would not have standing to do — but is merely protecting itself from committing infringement.  So why is fair use not applicable to the University’s use, an argument the Court rejects without much clear reasoning?

The Missouri decision is, in my opinion, one of the worst considered decisions I have ever seen; a colleague told me that even after being warned about it, it caused her to gasp in surprise and, I suspect, horror.  The ruling is made that much worse because the Court had before it an example of how the situation should have been handled, in the case of NCTQ v. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which was decided a year earlier and which got all of the issues raised above right where Missouri struggled to find a way to get them wrong.  There is a report on the Minnesota case available here.  Quite simply, the Minnesota Court of Appeals found that it could, and indeed must, consider fair use when faced with exactly the situation that the Missouri court got so wrong.  In Minnesota they decided that fair use clearly applied to allow a state institution to make and distribute the  the copies needed to comply with the Sunshine law.  It further held that the University could not resist compliance with the State’s open-records law based on a speculative future infringement that might occur when the materials were in the hands of the NCTQ.  In short, Minnesota decline to make copyright into an expansive shield that undermines the key values expressed in open records laws, which is exactly what Missouri did allow.

Fair use exists to prevent the copyright monopoly from undermining key democratic values.  It supports education and free speech precisely because these are key components of a democratic system.  So is transparency in government, and the deeply unfortunate decision made by the Missouri Court of Appeals allows copyright to defeat the intent of the Missouri Sunshine law precisely because it does not recognize that this is a key place where fair use should do its important work.

Getting into print the hard way

I hope I will be forgiven some self-promotion if I point out that my first book (that’s a little like saying my “first” marriage – so far it is the only one, and no other is anticipated, but one should never say never) has just been published. It is a handbook of intellectual property designed specifically to address the needs and concerns of researchers and teachers, and it was published on December 10 by the Association of College and Research Libraries. It is available for purchase on the ALA Store site here. There is also a PDF made available under a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-commercial license on the ACRL site.  I also expect to have a PDF in the DukeSpace institutional repository soon.

As a last piece of book promotion, I will note the blog post about the book on the Author’s Alliance web site, which was largely written by me.

All that aside, the real purpose of this post is to tell the story of publishing this book, because I think it is instructive for thinking about scholarly communication today. If I had to start with a moral for the whole story, it is that I should have started with the librarians, because they are a group — the ACRL was wonderful to work with — that can publish in the way most consistent with academic values and needs.

The story begins when I was contacted in 2009 by an editor for the University of Chicago Press, who suggested that I should write a handbook on IP for scholars.  I was immediately interested, and, at the editor’s request, wrote first a proposal and then drafts of the first two chapters.  Those chapters were sent out for review and we received both helpful suggestions and a recommendation to continue to develop the book from three reviewers.  With that step complete, the U of C Press and I signed a contract in late 2010, and I set out on a long and difficult journey to finish and publish the book.

The writing process took me considerably longer than I expected; no surprise there, of course.  When I apologized to my editor I was assured that it was OK; they would be interested in the project, they said, whenever it was complete.  During this time, however, I got the first indications that this would not be a smooth relationship.  I sent in chapters as I finished them, as the editor encouraged me to do, but did not get any of the promised feedback as I progressed.  For a couple of years I was essentially writing in a vacuum.

I finished writing in March 2013 and, in May of that year, finally sent the Press the completed draft of the manuscript, which they sent out for review.  The Press’ policy is that they must have two reviews of the full manuscript that recommend publication before they refer the book to their board for a final thumbs up.  So I began to wait.  After six months I checked in and was told that the Press had sent the manuscript to three reviewers.  One had sent in a report with a recommendation to publish.  One had reviewed just two chapters of the book, asserting that they were only qualified to comment on a portion of the subject matter.  The editor had not yet heard from the third reviewer, and without two full review that recommended publication, they could not move ahead.  The editor told me that the third reviewer would be reminded and that the Press would also look for an alternate reader.

Five months after this, having still heard nothing, I inquired again.  My e-mail went unanswered.  A second e-mail did elicit a response, which was that they were still waiting for that third reviewer.  There was no sign they had ever sought that additional reader.

At this point I was pretty frustrated.  Five people had read at least part of the manuscript, and all had recommended publication.  All of them had also made really helpful suggestions for improving the text which I tried to adopt. But the U. of C. Press was still passively waiting for that one final reader so they could comply to the letter with their self-created rules.  What bothered me most was the apparent lack of effort and commitment I was getting from the Press.  After talking with several academic authors about my situation, I decided to withdraw the book from the U of C Press.

When I told my editor about this decision, the first reaction was to try to talk me out of it and ask me to have patience.  The second reaction was to remind me of our contract and to suggest that I had no alternative but to wait it out with the U. of C.  In response, I suggested two concessions from them that would make the waiting easier.  First, I asked (for the first time, I am embarrassed to admit) for some form of open access to a version or a part of the book.  Second, I asked to be paid half of the advance we had agreed on as a sign of the Press’ commitment to the project.  I was told, however, that the first request was impossible because they needed to protect potential sales for the book, and that the second was contrary to their policy.  In regard to the latter issue, I was pointed to specific language in my contract about when the advance would be paid.  So I looked.  It turns out that the contract language was actually different from what the editor told me it was.  It stated pretty clearly that I would be paid the advance when I sent in the manuscript, not, as I had been told, only when and if the board approved final publication.  I have no idea why the contract language was what it was, or if it was really different from what the editor thought it should be.  I had not changed or negotiated that part of the agreement back when it was signed.  Maybe the Press just figured that no one will read their contracts, so they could claim whatever they wanted about them.

Anyway, I brought this discrepancy to the attention of my editor.  That was the last contact I ever had with that person.  A few days later I got an e-mail from the Director of the Press, apologizing to me for the treatment I had received and confirming that the Press had breached our contract by not paying the advance in a timely fashion.  I was told that I would be released from the contract AND that the Press would still pay the advance I was owed.  Over the next few weeks, we signed a formal letter releasing me to publish the book elsewhere and I received a check for the long-delayed advance.

On the plus side of this relationship, I did get quite a lot of very helpful feedback for my manuscript from the readers (although, of course, I am solely responsible for whatever errors remain).  Also, when faced with the clear evidence that they had not lived up to their side of the bargain, the Press did the right thing (maybe just to get rid of me!).  But on the negative side, I got almost no help from the editor in actually developing the manuscript, the “management” of peer-review was lackadaisical, and I wasted over a year after the book was finished waiting for the Press to get its act together before I asserted my freedom to start looking for another publisher.

After this experience, I spoke to one other commercial publisher, and this time made the expectation of an open access copy a condition from the beginning.  That led to a very short conversation.  So finally I did what I should have done from the start — work with the ACRL.  That experience was smooth, collaborative, and focused on the best way to make my work serve the needs of the audience it was intended for.  The ACRL arranged for excellent and expeditious copy-editing and indexing.  They agreed to immediate open access for the entire book. When there was a problem with the first print run of the book, the ACRL took immediate responsibility and re-printed the whole run.  The process took less than six months from signing a contract to publication.

From this experience I take away three lessons, which I think are worth sharing.  First, the claims about how much effort publishers put into a new book, and the help they provide to authors, are at least sometimes exaggerated.  I was working with a prestigious university press on a book they had solicited in the first place, and yet did not get nearly the kind of assistance or interest that I sometimes hear promised.  Second, it is extremely important to read, negotiate and save a copy of the publication contract.  That my book is now in print is largely due, I believe, to the fact that I could go back to the actual language of our agreement in order to convince the U. of C. to release me to find another publisher.  And finally, as I said at the beginning, libraries and library organizations, in my experience, understand the needs and goals of scholarly authors better than commercial presses.  As the future of academic publishing unfolds, I strongly hope that more and more of it will be in the hands, or under the oversight, of libraries.

 

 

Cancelling Wiley?

Because they were spaced almost a full year apart, I really did not connect the dots when two Canadian universities announced that they were cancelling their “Big Deals” with John Wiley & Sons publisher.  The Times Higher Education reported on the decision at the University of Montreal back in January 2014, while the announcement made by Brock University came only a few weeks ago.  I would not have considered this a trend worth commenting on had it not been for conversations I had last week at the Fall CNI Membership meeting.  During that meeting, two different deans of large university libraries told me, unbidden and in separate conversations, they they were also considering ending their deal with Wiley.  I was struck by the coincidence, which caused me to remember these two announcements from Canada and to begin to ponder the situation.

Two different questions occurred to me when I thought about these four significant cancellations or potential cancellations, all directed at a single publisher.  First, why was Wiley the focus of this dissatisfaction?  Second, what is the next step?

As for what the complaints are about Wiley, the answer is pretty much what it always is — money.  The THE article and the Brock University report both tell us that exchange rates have made the annual “higher than the inflation rate” price increases for these packages even harder to bear than usual.  They also point to another problem.  Pricing is based on the large number of titles included in these package deals, but many of those titles are not very useful.  The Brock post notes that the Wiley package has a significantly higher cost per use than does their Elsevier package, which presumably reflects the fact that many of the titles the University is paying for in the package simply do not get used.  The same reality is probably behind the fact noted by THE that Montreal would subscribe to less than 25% of the titles that had been included in the package it was cancelling.  It would be interesting to find out, a year on, how much those other titles have been missed.

In my conversations with the two library deans, much the same thing was said about Wiley — demanding a large price increase, being inflexible in negotiation, and selling “a lot of junk that I don’t need” in the package.  Libraries are beginning to discover that they do not need to put up with those tactics.  Publishers often tell us that they are publishing so many more articles, which justifies their price increases, and they tell us how selective their flagship journals are.  But when we look at these big deals, it is clear that selectivity is not an across-the-board approach; many articles that are not very useful just slide down the hierarchy to get published in journals whose main purpose is to pad out a “big” deal.

To me the more important question is “what now?”  Unfortunately, many times when a library makes this kind of decision there is actually little money saved, since the funds simply go into re-subscribing to a smaller, selected list of titles from the same publisher.  But presumably some of these cancellations result in dollars saved.  And when they don’t, I propose that libraries ought to reexamine their approach.  When you have cancelled a dross-laden package, think twice before reinvesting all of that money in as many individual subscriptions from the same publisher as possible; make a careful decision about where the division between useful titles and unnecessary ones really lies.  Because here is the thing — money that can be saved and reinvested in open access projects will give us a higher return on our investment, because those projects will provide greater access.

It seems clear that, over time, libraries will need to move more and more of their spending away from the consumption side of scholarly production and do much more to support the creation and dissemination of knowledge directly.  Commercial publishers hope to capture those dollars as well, but one of the real benefits of supporting open access can and should be more freedom from businesses addicted to 30% profits.  I would like to challenge libraries to consider, when they have to cancel, using the money to support non-profit or lower profit open access projects.  Work with a society to provide subvention for a scholarly journal to become OA.  Work with your university press to support OA monographs.  Finally, even if not compelled by immediate budget realities, think about making some strategic cancellations in order to take these kinds of steps.  We know that open access is our future, and it is vital that we take control of that future before others take it from us.

I don’t know if Wiley is the worst offender amongst the large commercial publishers, or whether there is a real trend toward cancelling Wiley packages.  But I know the future of scholarship lies elsewhere than with these large legacy corporations.  The process of weaning ourselves from them will be slow and drawn-out.  But especially when the cancellations are going to happen anyway, we should have the idea of using the funds to advance the transition to open access foremost in our minds.

For a similar, but likely better informed, perspective on the idea of cutting subscriptions to support open access, please read Cameron Neylon’s post on “Letting it go — Cancelling subscriptions, funding transitions,”which ties the idea in his title to the discussion going on in the Netherlands about Elsevier’s big deal.

Public access and protectionism

By now many folks have commented on the announcement from Nature Publishing Group early this week about public access to all of its content and most have sussed out the fairly obvious fact that this is not open access, in spite of the rah-rah headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education, nor even public access as it is defined by many national or funder mandates.  Just to review quickly the major points about why this announcement actually gives the scholarly community so much less than is implied by either of those terms, consider these limitations:

  1. A putative reader can only get to an article if they are sent a link by a subscriber, or the link is present in a news article written by one of the 100 news organizations that NPG has chosen to “honor.”
  2. Articles can only be read inside NPG’s proprietary reader
  3. No printing or downloading is possible, so a non-subscriber hoping to use one of these articles to further her own research better have a darn good memory!
  4. No machine processing will be possible; no text or data mining.

In short, all of the inconveniences of print journals are preserved; what NPG is facilitating here is essentially a replica of loaning a colleague your copy of the printed magazine.  Or, at best, the old-fashioned system whereby authors were given paper “off-prints” to send to colleagues.  Although, honestly, off-prints had more utility for furthering research than this “now you see it, now you don’t” system has.

If this is not open or public access, what is it?  I like the term “beggar access,” which Ross Mounce applied to NPG’s scheme in a recent blog post, since it makes clear that any potential reader must ask for and receive the link from a subscriber.  Some suggest that this is a small step forward, but I am not convinced.  There is nothing public or open about this “ask a subscriber” model; all it really does is prevent scholars from downloading PDFs from their subscription access to NPG journals and emailing them to colleagues who lack a subscription.  In short, it looks like another stage in the ongoing comedy of fear and incomprehension about the way digital scholarship works on the part of a major publisher.  But Mounce’s post suggests that the move is more than that; he points out ways in which it may be designed to prop up digital business that Nature and its parent Macmillan have invested in — specifically ReadCube and AltMetric.com.  The byzantine scheme announced by Nature will drive readers to ReadCube and will generate data for AltMetrics.com, helping ReadCube compete with, for example, Elsevier and their proprietary reading and sharing tool, Mendeley.

That is, this looks like another move in the efforts by the large commercial publishers to buy up and co-opt the potential of open access. On their lips, open access does not mean greater potential for research and the advancement of science; it means a new market to exploit.  If administrators, researchers and librarians allow that to happen, they will have only themselves to blame.

My colleague Haley Walton, who recently attended OpenCon 2014, told me about a presentation made by Audrey Watters that included the idea of “openwashing,” which Watters defines like this:

Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.

This is exactly what is happening in this announcement from NPG; old business models and awkward exploitation of new markets are being dressed up and presented as a commitment to access to scholarship, but the ruse is pretty transparent.  It may quack like a duck, or be quacked about, but this plan is really a turkey.

If NPG really was committed to better access for scientific research, there is a simple step they could take — put an end to the six-month embargo they impose on author self-archiving.  Much of their competition allows immediate self-archiving of an author’s final manuscript version of articles, but Nature does not.  Instead, they require a six-month embargo on such distribution.  So this new move does only very little to ameliorate the situation; the public still cannot see Nature-published research until it is old news.

Speaking of news, at Duke we have a relationship between the office of Scholarly Communications and that of News & Communications whereby we are notified of upcoming articles about research done at Duke.  In many cases, we are able to work with authors to get a version of the article in question into our repository and provide an open link that can be included in the article when it is released, or added shortly after release.  Our researchers find that putting such links in news stories leads to much better coverage of their discoveries and increased impact on their disciplines.  We always do this in accordance with the specific journal policies — we do not want to place our authors in a difficult position — which means that we cannot include Nature-published articles in this program.  To be frank, articles published in Nature remain highly valued by promotion and tenure committees, but relatively obscure in terms of their ability to advance science.  NPG seems to understand this problem, which is why they have selected a small number of news outlets to be allowed to use these tightly-restricted, read-only links.  They want to avoid increasing irrelevance, but they cannot quite bring themselves to take the necessary risk.  The best way they could advance science would be to eliminate the six-month embargo.

It is interesting to consider what might happen if Nature embraced a more comprehensive opportunity to learn what researchers think about open access by tying their “get a link from a subscriber” offer with an announcement that they were lifting the six-month embargo on self-archiving.  That would demonstrate a real commitment to better access for science, and it would set up a nice experiment.  Is the “version of record” really as important to researchers as some claim?  Important enough to tolerate the straightjacket created by NPG’s proprietary links?  Or will researchers and authors prefer self-archiving, even though an earlier version of the article must be used? This is not an obvious choice, and NPG might actually win its point, if it were willing to try; they might discover that their scheme is more attractive to authors than self-archiving.  NPG would have little to lose if they did this, and they would gain much more credit for facilitating real openness.  But the only way to know what the real preference among academic authors is would be for Nature Publishing to drop its embargo requirement and let authors choose.  When they make that announcement, I will believe that their commitment to finding new ways to promote research and learning is real.

Going all in on GSU

On Friday the publishers who are suing Georgia State University for allegedly infringing copyright by scanning short excerpts from academic books to provide students with access through electronic reserves and learning management systems filed a petition for a rehearing by the entire Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  As most will recall, the panel of the Eleventh Circuit essentially did what the publishers wanted — reversal of the lower court judgment — but the appeals panel denied those plaintiffs most of the principles by which they hope to radically reshape copyright law.  The publishers clearly understand that, whatever they can gain from additional lower court proceedings on remand, they will not get what they wanted when they brought the lawsuit.  The panel ruled that the first fair use factor favors an educational, non-profit use even if the use is not transformative, that an item-by-item analysis is appropriate, and that it matters in the fair use analysis whether or not a license for digital excerpts is available.  The publishers have decided they cannot live with these conclusions, so they have asked that those specific issues be reconsidered by the entire Eleventh Circuit court.  Their “petition for en banc rehearing” lays out their arguments.

GSU also has filed a petition for rehearing.  They are seeking some corrections to inaccurate statements about what list of alleged infringements was considered by the lower court, as well as a ruling that the risk of market harm from electronic reserves is a question of fact that the lower court should be instructed to consider.  That risk, GSU argues, should be proved; it is not something the appeals panel should have presumed.

It is important to understand there is little chance that these petitions will be granted.  When a case is appealed from the lower court to a Circuit Court of Appeals, we call that an “appeal as of right.”  That is, that first appeal must be heard by an appellate panel.  But thereafter, all subsequent appeals are discretionary; the court does not have to actually take the case, it has the option to deny the petition.  Most people are familiar with the idea that the Supreme Court actually reviews only a tiny percentage of the cases for which it receives a petition for a hearing.  Besides asking for Supreme Court review, the other option, after losing (or feeling like you lost) an appeal in front of a Circuit panel, is to ask that the entire group of judges in that Circuit reconsider the case.  Like Supreme Court petitions, these petitions for en banc rehearing are rarely granted.  In fact, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure explicitly say that petitions for rehearing are “not favored and ordinarily will not be granted”  (FRCP 35(a)).  For more information about these post-appeal options, interested readers should see this article from the law firm Reed Smith.

So does the petition from the publishers stand a chance?  There are two reasons a petition for rehearing might be granted: when there is a split within the courts of the Circuit or when a “question of extraordinary importance” is involved.  In their petition, the publishers rely on the latter claim, but it is not very convincing.  They try to drum up controversy by suggesting that the panel ruling contradicts some Supreme Court precedents, but, again, the effort is weak.  The petition relies on the 1980’s decision in Harper and Row v. Nation Magazine, which the Supremes themselves have seriously modified in later rulings.  So when the publishers object that the panel ignored Harper‘s emphasis on the importance of the fourth factor, they are deliberately ignoring language from the later Campbell v. Acuff-Rose case.

The other source that the publisher petition puts a lot of weight on is the “special concurrence” by Judge Roger Vinson.  Essentially, Judge Vinson dissented on every major point in the majority opinion, but concurred in the result.  Taken together, the two opinions indicate that a lot of negotiation took place in the 11 months it took to produce the ruling.  It suggests, in fact, that the other two panel judges — Tjoflat and Marcus — were actually more sympathetic to fair use than is expressed in the majority opinion.  But what is important about the heavy reliance on Judge Vinson in the petition for rehearing is the fact that Judge Vinson is not a regular member of the Eleventh Circuit.  He is a senior judge at the District Court level (in Florida) who was on the Appeals Court panel to fill a vacant seat (called “sitting by designation”).  That means that he presumably will have no role in deciding whether or not to grant the petition, or in any actual rehearing, in the unlikely event the petition is granted.  So the publishers have found a friend in Judge Vinson, but he is not a friend who can help them all that much.

This petition for rehearing is thus a long shot, and it reveals the stark opposition of these three publishers to fair use as it has traditionally been interpreted throughout the long history of U.S. copyright law.  Let’s look at the three principles the publishers say that they want and that the appeals panel got wrong.

The first point from the panel decision that the publishers say is wrong involves the idea of “media-neutrality.”  This is a huge red-herring that the publishes have been waving around to distract the various courts from the weakness of their case, and they lead off with it in the rehearing petition. Judge Vinson was convinced by this argument that if courts do not treat electronic reserves the same way print course packs were treated in the “copyshop” cases from the 1990s, they are violating a principle of media-neutrality.  The majority opinion, on the other hand, tried to define the limited role that media neutrality has in copyright law, a definition the new petition claims was an error.  There are a couple of important points that are getting overlooked in this discussion.

For one thing, there are many ways in which copyright is not media neutral.  Many exceptions, for example, refer to specific media and specific technologies.  There is a provision just related to royalties on digital audio recording machines, for example.  The TEACH Act refers to transmission over a digital network, and is inapplicable to other types of distance learning.  Broadcast television is treated differently than cable, and terrestrial radio differently than Internet radio.  Since the law is therefore often media-specific, it was not irrational for the panel majority to try to define what media neutrality does, and does not, mean.  The publishers want it to mean something very specific in order to benefit their case, but the panel looked at a principle-based definition that took account of how the copyright law as a whole really works, and rejected the publishers’ ad hoc claim.

The reason for pushing this broad and self-serving definition of media-neutrality, of course, is to convince courts that the “course pack” cases are good analogies for electronic reserves.  Since those cases found against fair use, the publishers’ argument goes, the principle of media neutrality demands that fair use also be rejected for electronic reserves.  But, in fact, neither the lower court nor the appellate panel has rejected the course pack cases because of a perceived difference between electronic and print fair use.  This is just sand being thrown in the face of the courts to confuse them (it worked with Judge Vinson).  The course pack cases are distinguishable instead on first factor grounds that have nothing to do with the media involved; those cases involved a commercial intermediary making and selling the course packs, which is an entirely different situation than is reflected in the GSU case.

The second claim the publishers make in their petition attempts to undermine the first fair use factor more directly by asserting that it should not favor non-profit educational uses unless they are transformative.  Although the publishers assert that this is the meaning of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, that is simply not true.  Although that case laid great weight on transformation for many fair use decisions, it explicitly stated that not all fair use must be transformative, and cited “multiple copies for classroom use” as the paradigmatic case of a non-transformative use that is likely still fair.  They get this phrase directly from section 107, of course.  So the publishers are asking for a pretty radical reconfiguration of the copyright law here, that would directly defy the Supreme Court and the text of the law.  It would be pretty audacious of the Eleventh Circuit to accept this argument, but the publishers are clearly going all in with their fight against fair use.  It seems they are reasoning that if they can persuade the Eleventh Circuit into accepting this radical new view of copyright, they could at least get a shot at Supreme Court review by provoking a split in the circuits where none has previously existed.

Finally, the most troubling claim the publishers make is in their argument that the fourth fair use factor’s emphasis on market harm, including “potential” markets, gives them the right to decline to offer a license for digital excerpts without tipping the fourth factor toward favoring fair use.  The appellate panel correctly noted that this argument would demolish fair use, since it would allow a rights holder to say “we could have licensed this use if we wanted to, so allowing fair use damages the potential market we have chosen not to enter.”

In one sense, I would like to see a discussion of this idea of potential markets.  It should be seen as a gateway to consider the incentive purpose of copyright law.  How would it create additional incentive for creation to permit publishers to refuse to license uses of academic works?  These markets are not an end in themselves, but a vehicle to produce such incentives.  Establishing a right to refuse to license does not serve this purpose at all.  It is a selfish and antisocial argument put forward by the publishers to protect the artificial scarcity that they believe they must create in order to make money.  In short, the publishers want the right to limit access to knowledge because they do not have the vision needed to run successful businesses in a changing environment.

What do we lose if that argument is accepted?  Only our most cherished democratic value, the freedom of expression.  Fair use has always been considered a “safety valve” for free expression that prevents a rights holder from suppressing speech he or she doesn’t like by asserting copyright.  If we were to accept this potential market argument, a rights holder would be a step closer to preventing scholarly commentary by denying a license for the quotations used in, for example, a review (as Stephen James Joyce famously tried to do regarding his grandfather’s work).  That might seem extremely unlikely on a larger scale, but we should remember that publishers often require their authors to obtain permission for the use of quotations beyond an artificially imposed word limit.  Combined with this idea that denial of a license should not improve the fair use argument, the conditions for such suppression would be ideal.

The truly shocking thing about this petition is how openly Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Sage Publishing are now attacking free speech and the dissemination of knowledge.  These are not “academic” presses anymore; their profit motive and shorted-sighted focus on protecting old business models has led them to assume an anti-academic stance that the scholarly community should not tolerate.  They are demanding nothing less than a right to suppress and inhibit the spread of knowledge, simply by refusing to offer a license, whenever the believe that doing so is to their commercial advantage.  I have often been asked if I think scholars, libraries, and others should boycott these publishers because of the lawsuit, and I have always said that we should wait and see where the cases goes.  To me, it has now gone in an intolerable direction, one that threatens core principles of academic discourse.  Everyone must make their own decision, of course, but I am now willing to say that I will neither publish with these three plaintiff publishers nor buy their products.  They have declared war on teaching and the dissemination of scholarship, and I will not help them buy the ammunition.