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Have College Professors Become Digital Pirates?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on April 16, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Some of the most prolific examples of digital piracy can be traced not to hackers, but to universities and college professors, a series of lawsuits seems to assert.

In each case, the schools and professors claim that fair use applies to their alleged copyright infringement, The Wall Street Journal reports. But critics say "fair use" is going too far.

One case involving Georgia State University's "e-reserve" service -- where professors can post excerpts from copyrighted textbooks for students to read -- may soon be decided by an Atlanta federal judge, who described her legal predicament in court:

There is "not a single case in the U.S. at any level that spells out what the standards are for fair use within a university like Georgia State," the judge said during closing arguments, according to Corporate Counsel.

Georgia State is not the only college to face a piracy lawsuit. In a separate action, a nonprofit group called the Authors Guild is suing the HathiTrust digital repository along with five schools -- the universities of Michigan, California, and Wisconsin, plus Indiana University and Cornell -- for scanning millions of copyrighted books.

The HathiTrust case is the first to ask "whether the unauthorized mass digitization of library books is fair use under U.S. law," the Authors Guild said in a statement, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The doctrine of fair use allows the use of parts of a copyrighted work without permission from the copyright holder. Courts generally consider four factors when deciding on a fair use claim:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether it's commercial or educational;
  • The nature of the copyrighted work;
  • How much was used compared to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • The effect on the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

Though the Copyright Act allows for fair use for teaching, scholarship, and research, not every use of a copyrighted work is "fair," the American Library Association cautioned, according to the Journal. Until courts weigh in on the issue, it's possible more college professors will face similar piracy lawsuits.

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