When college professors want students to read a small part of a book, they put that book on reserve at the library, so everyone can get access to the bit of information they need without having to buy the entire expensive work. Advances in technology have made this even easier for students: librarians have created electronic reserves, allowing online access to a digital version of the excerpt.  But the publishing world has come down hard on these electronic reserves in a lawsuit aimed at Georgia State University (GSU), insisting that libraries must pay fees for excerpts they make available digitally to students. In an amicus brief filed on behalf of several national library associations today, EFF argues that electronic reserves must be protected to serve the public interest and preserve librarians’ and students’ fair-use rights.

This case started back in 2008, when the Association of American Publishers (AAP) recruited three plaintiffs to sue GSU for copyright infringement in their electronic reserves. GSU promptly updated its procedures to conform to fair use guidelines the AAP itself had helped draft for other universities. But instead of declaring victory, the plaintiffs continued to pursue this case, even taking it up on appeal when their claims were rejected by a federal district court.

In the amicus brief filed today, EFF urges the appeals court to see what the district court saw: the vast majority of uses at issue were protected fair uses. Moreover, as a practical matter, the licensing market the publishers say they want to create for e-reserves will never emergenot least because libraries can’t afford to participate in it. Even assuming that libraries could pay such fees, requiring this would thwart the purpose of copyright by undermining the overall market for scholarship. Given libraries’ stagnant or shrinking budgets, any new spending for licenses must be reallocated from existing expenditures, and the most likely source of reallocated funds is the budget for collections. An excerpt license requirement thus will harm the market for new scholarly works, as the works assigned for student reading are likely to be more established pieces written by well-known academics. Libraries’ total investment in scholarship will be the same but resources will be diverted away from new works to redundant payments for existing ones, in direct contradiction of copyright’s purpose of “promot[ing] progress.”

A win for the publishers here would be a Pyrrhic victory at best for them, and a significant loss for the public interest.  We hope the appellate court agrees that copyright law does not require forcing libraries to make reading a handful of pages either extraordinarily expensive or inordinately difficult for college students.

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