Cracking Down on Copyright Law: The AAP Throws the "Book" at Universities

Jan 29, 2008


Not too long ago, college professors who wanted to assign additional course readings were required to go to the campus library and put paper-and-ink books on reserve for their students to read outside of class. Now, the digital age has given way to online electronic reserve and course management systems, making library practices of yore nearly obsolete.

In response to these new and popular methods of distributing materials, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has entered talks with universities in order to uphold copyright laws for course content in digital formats. Just last week, three institutions—Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, and Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY—reached separate agreements with the AAP and developed guidelines to govern the use of educational content in college classrooms.

The AAP launched this campaign roughly two years ago after observing that many universities, while following copyright law for the dissemination of printed materials, were oftentimes not adhering to the same laws with regard to course materials distributed electronically.

Since the use of electronic reserves on online "blackboards" has become so commonplace on college campuses, the AAP realized it had a problem on its hands that needed to be addressed.

"The copyright law should be consistent with respect to the use of [electronic] materials," says Allan Adler, VP of legal and government affairs for the AAP. "The important thing was to try to clear up some misunderstandings about whether digital materials have the same rules that apply to them that printed materials do. Faculty were providing copyrighted works to their students that came in digital form rather than only from textbooks."

Through desktop searches, the AAP began investigating college practices and policies with regard to copyright guidelines for digital works. Universities whose guidelines were found to be sub-par—like those of Hofstra, Syracuse, and Marquette—were contacted by the AAP.

And, remarks Adler, those contacted thus far have been cooperative with the AAP's efforts. "It was a good process working with these universities. Most of our communication took place through conference calls and email. The principles we were proposing through these guidelines were non-controversial, and the schools found them to be non-controversial as well."

The adopted guidelines, which vary only slightly between the schools, are pretty straightforward. Hofstra's policy states, "Any use of copyrighted content that would require permission from the copyright owner when made available in paper format would likewise require the copyright owner's permission when made available in an electronic format." Syracuse's new guidelines state, "Making an electronic copy of a copyrighted work by any means is considered to be reproduction and is subject to copyright law, including the fair use doctrine."

Simply understood, these recent agreements between the AAP and the three universities concluded that just because a copyrighted work is presented in a digital environment rather than a printed environment, that doesn't make copyright law inapplicable. And that is precisely the point the AAP is trying to make, though it may be awhile until all universities nationwide clarify their own copyright guidelines. "There are many people who believe that anything you find online is free to be taken," Adler observes. "Just because you can find it online, it doesn't mean that copyrighted materials can be used and distributed without permission."