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Georgia (State University) on My Mind

Last month, a federal district court judge ruled on the cross motions for summary judgment filed in the lawsuit against Georgia State University for copyright infringement. Unexpectedly, but thankfully, the ruling on those motions has opened the door to an actual trial being conducted. The hope of academic institutions and academic publishers alike is that some clarification will be offered as to the boundaries of fair use as pertains to electronic reserves.

To bring the unaware up to speed, a brief review of the litigation follows. In April 2008, three major academic publishers (Cambridge University Press, SAGE Publications, and Oxford University Press) filed suit against various officials, including the provost and library dean, of the Georgia State University system alleging copyright infringement. The complaint accused the University of engaging in “pervasive, flagrant and ongoing unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials” via the course management system Blackboard™, departmental web pages, and hyperlinked online syllabi. The complaint alleged, specifically, that at the time of filing the University had stored on its servers 6700 works that had been used in over 600 courses and that these works had been repeatedly and systematically made available to faculty, students and staff for downloading, viewing, and printing without first obtaining copyright clearance from the copyright holders. The publishers do not seek monetary damages but rather seek to enjoin the University (and ostensibly other educational entities) from further engaging in this type of electronic reserves practice.

In the months that followed, the University dramatically revised its copyright policy. Both sides also filed motions for summary judgment, accompanied by lengthy briefs. Now, some thirty months after the suit was first filed, the trial judge ruled on those motions. The motions required the trial judge to review the three claims of liability presented in the compliant: (1) direct copyright infringement, (2) contributory copyright infringement, and (3) vicarious copyright infringement liability. The direct liability claim stemmed from the publishers’ contention that even if the individually named University officials did not personally commit infringement, the employees of the University acted in the scope of their employment when they posted materials online and that their infringing conduct could thus be imputed to the University (“doctrine of respondeat superior”). The trial judge dismissed this claim in favor of the University on the ground that the doctrine of respondeat superior could not legally support a claim of direct liability.

The vicarious liability claim arose from the publishers’ argument that the University committed infringement by facilitating and encouraging faculty, students and staff to view, download, print, and otherwise distribute materials that had been posted online in the e-reserves system in violation of the publishers’ copyrights.  The trial judge again ruled in favor of the University on this issue. In order for the University to be vicariously liable, it had to be shown that the University profited financially from the infringing use of copyrighted works by its faculty, students, and staff. The publishers’ argument that the University’s purchase and promotion of a course management system and other current technologies, which have many non-infringing uses, attracted and retained students was insufficient to demonstrate that the University realized a financial profit through distribution of copyrighted works.

As to the claim of contributory infringement, the trial judge denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment, and this remaining issue will thus be resolved at trial. Because the University revised its copyright policy after suit was filed, the judge directed that the publishers must demonstrate at trial that infringement is likely to occur under the revised policy. Conduct under the prior policy is irrelevant because, under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the University is liable only for future, or continuous and ongoing, infringement. Further, and significantly, the judge noted that the policy as currently written does not induce or encourage infringement. As such, the publishers have the burden of showing that the policy is implemented in a way that facilitates and encourages ongoing and continuous infringement.

The good news for those in the academic community is the revised policy adopted by Georgia State University resembles those copyright policies adopted at numerous institutions across the country. Further, by placing this heavy burden upon the publishers, the trial judge has invited an examination of various scenarios played out in libraries and academic institutions every day. The hope is that this examination and review of the examples sure to be brought before the trial court will clarify and define the bounds of fair use in a way that benefits educational users of copyrighted materials.

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