A group of academic publishers filed a lawsuit against Georgia State University officials on Tuesday, alleging a systematic abuse of copyrighted works in the online distribution of coursework reading materials.
Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and Sage Publications allege the university "facilitated, enabled, encouraged, and induced" professors to upload the copyrighted materials to its online system for students to download, without first obtaining the necessary permissions or paying licensing fees.
The lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court in Georgia, may mark the first time publishers have challenged universities over the electronic distribution of written copyrighted works, noted the plaintiffs' attorney.
"Our clients believe this is a widespread problem," said Bruce Rich, an attorney with Weil, Gotshal & Manges, who is representing the plaintiffs.
The problem first cropped up a couple years ago, noted Patricia Schroeder, head of the Association of American Publishers, of which the plaintiffs are members.
"A couple years ago, we noted a drop-off in universities seeking copyright permission as they shifted to the digital world," Schroeder said. "Even though technology changes, the law doesn't."
The publishers allege Georgia State University permitted its professors to reproduce vast amounts of copyrighted materials and combine them into course packets for students.
Although the problem of copyright infringement is believed to be widespread among colleges and universities, the majority of those institutions contacted by publishers generally cooperate and take steps to remedy the situation, Rich said.
The key issue for the publishers is harm to the market, Rich said. For example, he questioned whether professors would be able to continuing publishing their research, given the related costs involved, if their respective publishers were not compensated for providing the materials.
Although the reproduction of copyrighted materials is permitted under fair use laws, it's limited in the extent the materials that can be copied, such as excerpts verses chapters upon chapters, Rich noted.
A spokeswoman for Georgia State University declined to comment, noting the institution and the parties cited in the lawsuit have not yet been served with the complaint.