Fair Abuse


Back in April, three publishers (Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Sage Publications) sued Georgia State University claiming that course readings that professors and librarians have made available online infringed their copyrights.The publishers' maintain that the institution encourages students to illegally download and print readings from thousands of works.

Last week, Georgia State University went public in papers filed with the U.S. District Court in Atlanta with some of its defense asserting that that its online distribution of course material is permitted under the Fair Use exemption of copyright law.

GSU was offering materials online to students as electronic reserves in the library, behind the login/password protection of the Blackboard course-management system, and on departmental & other university websites.

Personally, I would love to see a case that adds come clarity to the vague language of Fair Use of materials being used for scholarship, teaching, or review. (Of course, I'm glad it's not MY institution that is the test case!)

The big issue here might be the consideration of the amount of material being made available to students since the suit argues (see article) that GSU's use was "systematic" and "widespread," and involved "vast amounts of copyrighted work."

It somewhat muddies the water for other schools looking for a precedent here that GSU is also arguing that it is protected from federal lawsuits under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a doctrine known as state sovereign immunity.

It's important for teachers and students to understand the legal issues involved in copying and redistributing the work of others. After all,the creator of an original work can be a student, teachers or professional writer or artist does automatically own all the rights to its use. Well, there are certain exceptions - one of them is Fair Use.

Fair use allows us to use copyrighted materials without payment or special permission if it is being used for the purpose of education, review, satire, or journalism. That's the part a lot of educators know and quote. But there are also some further considerations to take into account:

  1. the purpose and character of the use (which includes whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes - GSU seems safe on this.
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole (part of the suit)
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work (certainly part of the publishers motivation)

It's very doubtful that a court would support an educator or student putting materials for an educational purpose on the public Internet for others to access and/or download or redistribute.


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