On Friday, a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in the publisher’s appeal from the second trial court ruling in their lawsuit against Georgia State University, challenging GSU’s practices regarding library electronic reserves. The decision came 449 days after the appeal was heard, which is an astonishingly long time for such a ruling. I wish I could say that the wait was worth it, and that the ruling adds to our stock of knowledge about fair use. Unfortunately, that is not what happened, and the case continues to devolve into insignificance.
The judges on the appellate panel seem to realize how trivial the case has become. After working on it for one year, two months, and three weeks, the court produced a decision on only 25 pages, which sends the case back, yet again, for new proceedings in the district court. The short opinion simply reviews their earlier instructions and cites ways in which the panel believes that Judge Orinda Evans misapplied those instructions when she held that second trial. What it does not do is probably more significant than what it does. The ruling does not fundamentally alter the way the fair use analysis has been done throughout this case. The publishers have wanted something more sweeping and categorical, but they lost that battle a long time ago. The 11th Circuit also affirms Judge Evans’ decision to not reopen the record, thus preventing the publishers, and the Copyright Clearance Center that is pulling their strings, from introducing new evidence of licensing options that did not exist when they brought the case in 2008. Although it seems like a mere technicality, this ruling, another loss for the publishers, really points out how silly and out-of-date the lawsuit now is.
This time around, the circuit court seems to say more explicitly that they expect more of the excerpts that are at the center of this dispute to be found to be infringing. They clearly do not like the fact that, after the first appeal, and with their instructions to be less mathematical in her analysis and to weigh the fourth factor more heavily, Judge Evans found fewer infringements (by one) than she had in the first trial. So if there is a third trial, maybe the outcome will be six infringements, or even ten. But the big principles that the publishers were trying to gain are all lost. There will be no sweeping injunction, nor any broad assertion that e-reserves always require a license. The library community will still have learned that non-profit educational use is favored under the first fair use factor even when that use is not transformative. The best the publisher plaintiffs can hope for is a split decision, and maybe the chance to avoid paying GSU’s costs, but the real victories, for fair use and for libraries, have already been won.
The saddest thing about this case is that, after ten years, it continues to chew over issues that seem less and less relevant. Library practices have evolved during that time, and publishing models have changed. Open access and the movement toward OERs have had a profound impact on the way course materials are provided to students. So the impact of this case, and of any final decision, if one ever comes, will be negligible. The plaintiff publishers actually lost a long time ago, they simply lack the wisdom to recognize that fact.
Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Sage Publishing v. J.L Albert should have settled years ago. Instead it has devolved into a kind of punchline, much like Jarndyce v. Jarndyce from Dicken’s Bleak House; the mere mention of it causes people to roll their eyes and giggle. The final resolution of this dispute may yet be a long way off, but at this point the takeaway from the case is clear: carry on with your daily work, teachers and librarians, there is nothing to see here.