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October 26, 2000

SCHOLARLY PUBLISHING: Interpretation of copyright law could threaten fair use

Provost James V. Maher said the latest revision of U.S. copyright law, as originally drafted, gave him nightmares of waking up one morning to find that the Disney Corp. had gained exclusive rights to the dictionary.

Maher was exaggerating. Slightly.

The original legislation, which Congress rejected, threatened to give publishers control over university-produced research to the point that professors might have faced problems gaining access to their own published works, the provost said at last week's Senate meeting.

The amended legislation that Congress approved in fall 1998 includes "fair use" provisions defending academic interests, according to Maher.

Lobbyists for the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC) "had heavy input in approval of those provisions of the law that went in our favor," Maher said.

"A NASULGC lobbyist told me that there is an incredible fight to the death going on between the producers, transmitters and users of intellectual property. They're all out for blood. Universities are the one major group in all three camps simultaneously, so Congress looks to us as an impartial but involved party."

University Library System director Rush G. Miller said that despite Congressional support, "We're in serious danger in this country of changing the nature of copyright from promotion of the exchange of information to protection of the publisher's right to exact prices for that same information."

Traditionally, he and Maher said, faculty have transferred, without direct compensation, all copyrights to journal publishers in return for wide distribution of their work. But in some recent cases, faculty have been forced to seek permission and pay a fee to use their own work.

The Pitt administrators urged professors to closely examine transfer-of-copyright contracts they sign with commercial publishers.

Faculty, librarians and administrators at U.S. colleges and universities must work together to ensure continued, widespread distribution of scholarly work, said Maher.

It's nearly impossible for

individual universities to impose their own "fair use"

policies, the provost said.

Several years ago, he recalled, Cal Tech encouraged its faculty to refuse to sign blanket transfer-of-copyright contracts. Instead, faculty were to get publishers to agree to an alternative contract, developed by Cal Tech lawyers, which gave publishers plenty of control over copyright but protected access by faculty to their own work.

Cal Tech faculty complained that their school's policy hurt their chances of getting published in leading journals, and the policy failed, Maher said.

— Bruce Steele  

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 5

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