2 Universities Under the Legal Gun

Publishers take on Georgia State U., while video producers sue UCLA

May 29, 2011

The case: Association for Information Media and Equipment and Ambrose Video Publishing Inc. v. The Regents of the University of California et al. The lawsuit was filed in December in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Who's fighting: The information-media trade group and one of its members, Ambrose, sued President Mark G. Yudof of the University of California, Chancellor Gene D. Block of the Los Angeles campus, and other officials for copyright infringement.

What they're fighting about: The educational video publishers claim that UCLA is violating copyright and breaching its contract by copying DVD's of Shakespeare plays acquired from Ambrose and streaming them online for faculty and students to use in courses. They say UCLA had the right only to lend copies to teachers for in-class use or to show the DVD's in the library itself. The university did not "secure the right to stream our programs from a library server to any class and any student whenever it chooses," said Allen Dohra, president of the trade group, in a written statement. UCLA says copyright law permits streaming. It points to the fair-use principle, which can allow reproductions for teaching, and the Teach Act, which allows limited use of copyrighted materials for online education. "And singling out one kind of content as being off limits is a slippery slope in terms of our ability to teach," said Christine L. Borgman, a professor of information studies at UCLA.

Why it matters: The outcome could affect policies at institutions around the country. Universities have wondered for years whether fair use allows them to digitize and share movies for online access in courses. "It's one of the most common situations. ... 'I want my students to watch this audiovisual work'—whether it's a 10-minute instructional program or a two-hour feature-release film—'and I want to put it on a server so they can all just watch it in their own free time. Can we do that?'" says Kenneth D. Crews, director of the Copyright Advisory Office at the Columbia University Libraries. Much is also at stake for publishers, who say UCLA's practice could be catastrophic for the educational-video business. They fear it will cut off new markets for distributors like Ambrose, which sells its own streaming service.

Where it stands: UCLA's lawyers are trying to get the case dismissed, and a judge has yet to issue a ruling on that motion.


The case: Cambridge University Press et al. v. Patton et al . The trial began May 17 in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

Who's fighting: In April 2008, three major academic publishers—Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and SAGE Publications—filed a copyright-infringement action against several officials of Georgia State University. The defendants include Mark P. Becker, the university's president; Nancy H. Seamans, dean of libraries; and the members of the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents.

What they're fighting about: Whether Georgia State's online sharing of copyrighted material with students via electronic course reserves, course Web sites, and other means exceeds the limits of fair use. The plaintiffs allege that the university engaged in "systematic, widespread, and unauthorized copying and distribution of a vast amount of copyrighted works." The publishers seek strict limits, so that the university would need permission before reproducing or distributing their copyrighted works, which would be permitted only up to the amounts set by 1976 federal guidelines for use in nonprofit educational settings. The plaintiffs also seek to make the university legally responsible for policing any copying and sharing that takes place on its systems or computers.

Why it matters: The case "has the potential to drastically rewrite many academic practices," says Nancy Sims, copyright-program librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries. A win for the publishers could restrict the material professors share with students and how they share it. Librarians, who handle e-reserves and the licensing of copyrighted material, would also be affected. In a post on Duke University's scholarly communications blog, Kevin Smith, the university's scholarly-communications officer, described the plaintiffs' request to limit how much material can be used as "a nightmare scenario for higher education." Publishers Weekly described the case as "the most significant copyright trial for publishers since the Kinko's course-pack litigation," referring to a 1991 case in which Basic Books sued the Kinko's chain for copyright infringement. (The publisher won.)

Outside aid: The Copyright Clearance Center, a nonprofit group that sells "content-licensing solutions" for institutions, is underwriting some of the publishers' legal costs.

Where it stands: Testimony is expected to take several weeks. Expect the losing side to appeal.