Puppy punching image courtesy trulyoddplanet.com
In their ongoing quest to punch every puppy they can find, rights holders have turned to suing those most rapacious of pirates, professors. Academic publishers are asking a judge in Georgia for an injunction against Georgia State University for a liberal fair-use policy. What these publishers are objecting to is unapproved and unpaid-for book and article excerpts in class materials—essentially quoting and anthologizing. They want everything that can be paid for to be paid for. Specifically, professors couldn't use more than 10 percent or 1,000 words of an in-print book, whichever is less. That's about two pages. And it's campus wide—if I use two pages of Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes in my class, no student or teacher can use a third page without paying or getting sued by the publisher of Moral Mazes. See what's funny there? It's got "moral" right in the title. The publishers believe that anything in print isn't subject to fair use, a recently made up idea called the Market Failure Theory of fair use.
Fair use image courtesy freedomforip.org
But that's not what fair use is about. It's a limit to copyright baked into the law. In the act itself, it cites a teacher making copies of classroom materials as a fair use. It's part of the copyright bargain; we grant these rights in exchange for material that improves our society as a whole, not so a group of publishers can get a piece of that mad college student money. These publishers not only want to make education more expensive, they want to make the university peer over the shoulders of teachers, making sure they don't copy that 1,001st word, or risk being sued. Hopefully, the court will rule against them, but even if it does, it's a sign of how publishers are treating the society that grants them their rights these days—badly.
Quinn Norton writes about copyright for Wired News and other publications.