Fair Use in an Educational Setting

The University of Michigan just recently won a lawsuit in which the University was alleged of copyright infringement in its effort to digitize its library contents. On September 12, 2011, the Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors, the Union Des Écrivaines et des Écrivains Québécois (UNEQ), and eight individual authors filed a lawsuit against HathiTrust, the University of Michigan, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, and Cornell University for copyright infringement. On October 10, 2012, a Federal District Court in the Southern District of New York dismissed the suit finding that the University of Michigan’s use of books fit within “fair use” of the Copyright Act.

HathiTrust was created through a collaboration of universities in order to establish a repository for those universities to archive and share their digitized collections. The Authors Guild argued that the access HathiTrust provided to the scanned materials was in violation of their members’ copyrights, claiming that the universities had pooled the unauthorized scans of an estimated 7 million copyright-protected books. The Authors Guild also claimed that while many U.S. universities had allowed the scanning of books that were in the public domain, only the defendant universities had allowed copyright-protected books to be scanned.

One of the major issues with the HathiTrust digitalization plan was a project called Orphan Works. Orphan Works are books that are subject to copyright but whose copyright holders cannot be identified or located. As a consequence, users cannot seek permission to use these works in ways that might involve copying or distributing the work. The Authors Guild claimed that the procedures for determining whether a work should be deemed an “orphan” were deficient, as “within days of the suit’s filing on September 12th, the Authors Guild, its members, and others commenting on its blog had developed strong leads to dozens of authors and estates,” while in other cases “simple Google searches turned up most of the leads in minutes.”

HathiTrust has repeatedly claimed that the primary motive driving the digitalization effort was preservation for a scholarly purpose, as the sharing was limited to online reading by faculty and students of participating universities. The scholarly purpose of the digitalization would make the sharing legal under Section 107 of U.S. copyright law, which allows for fair use of a copyrighted work without infringing the copyright. HathiTrust argued that educational, non-profit uses of copyrighted works, falls within previous interpretations of what qualifies as “fair use.”

Federal District Judge Harold Baer Jr. of the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of HathiTrust, stating, “Although I recognize that the facts here may on some levels be without precedent, I am convinced that they fall safely within the protection of fair use … I cannot imagine a definition of fair use that would not encompass the transformative uses made by Defendants’ [Mass Digitalization Project] and would require that I terminate this invaluable contribution to the progress of science and cultivation of the arts.” With this ruling, Judge Baer has “reaffirmed the role of libraries as promoting knowledge creation and equality of access.”

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