The downside of playing nice

There has been lots of talk in copyright arenas recently about settlements. Some settlements, like the “pre-litigation” settlements the RIAA is offering to college students, where the industry collects roughly the same amount they had been getting from their lawsuits without having to bear the expense of actually filing, are clearly bad deals for the public.  But the downside of other settlements is not so obvious.

Recently English professor Carol Schloss settled her lawsuit against the James Joyce estate. She had sought a declaratory judgment that quoting from unpublished letters between Joyce and his daughter Lucia in a scholarly book was fair use, and the settlement was clearly a victory for Schloss. The Joyce estate agreed not to sue her for using the excerpts, which had been removed from her book about Lucia under threat of an infringement claim, on her web site and in future publications. But it is less clear that this is a victory for scholarship in general. If the case had gone to trial, a decision would have had precedential value, and we would have had another bit of clarity in the murky world of academic fair use. Fair use is so ambiguous that scholars often refrain from certain uses simply to avoid the uncertainty. Most of us assume that quoting from primary sources in scholarly work, just as Schloss wanted to do, is fair use, but it would have been nice for a court to confirm our impression.

Instead, the settlement agreement only resolves the issue between the parties to the case and has no impact on fair use for the rest of academia. In fact, the AP paraphrased the attorney for the Joyce estate this way: “Nelson also noted that the estate granted only Schloss permission to quote the materials under limited circumstances, meaning neither she nor other scholars would be permitted to use them outside the scope outlined in the settlement agreement.” Not really a Phyrric victory, but not a helpful one either.

Suggestions that the various publishers who are suing Google over the Book Project might settle for some lump sum payment from Google’s deep pockets offer a similar prospect. If Google were to lose its fair use claim in court, of course, the effect on fair use for the rest of us could be profoundly negative. But if they fought on and won, the prospects for library digitization and public access would be much brighter.  A settlement, however, will set only one precedent — that lots of money can solve all disputes. It will not clear up the fair use picture and it will not benefit libraries that can not afford to purchase the right to digitize their collections for the benefit of the public.

So with all due respect to my grandmother’s admonition to get along with everyone, I have to recognize that sometimes there is a downside to playing nice and coming to a settlement agreement.

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