Dorothy Salo who pens an insightful blog, Caveat Lector (what a brilliant name for a blog) has the headline “Hate to be Georgia State“. She is referring to the controversy surrounding the action against that University, for blatant copyright infringement, taken by the two biggest University Presses, OUP, CUP and Sage, one of the most respected publishers of high level social science. The action is backed, perhaps underwritten, by the AAP.

If you read the formal Complaint for Declaratory Judgement and Injunctive Relief, you may feel a tremor of concern for Georgia State’s officers and librarians. As I read the documents prepared by the publishers’ lawyers the case looks pretty strong. But of course that is what lawyers do. They prepare suits that make a strong case. We have not yet heard the Georgia State side of the case. I suspect that the dispute, even if it is won or more probably settled out of court, will in the long run be as bad for publishers as it appears to be for the university. No publisher wants to sue good customers and Georgia State is certainly a good customer for many publishers. It can not be a happy sight for two prestigious British university presses to be suing an American State University. Questions will be asked.

This story was broken in the New York Times a week ago, and their reporter elicited an interestingly specific comment from CUP’s Editorial Director, a well respected publisher:

Frank Smith, editorial director for academic books at Cambridge University Press, said that for electronic use in a course, Cambridge typically charges 17 cents a page for each student, and generally grants permission for use of as much as 20 percent of a book.

If you do the math on 17c per page, per student, you get an astronomical price for a course pack in a popular subject. A thousand page e-reserve for a course taken by 100 students is going to cost the university $17,000 per annum. This pricing policy, per student per page, per annum, may once have been appropriate (when universities produced local print anthologies in lieu of buying books) but it is inherently unreasonable for the kind of ambient access that web-based teaching requires. The libraries for the most part already have the books and publishers absolutely need to find ways of encouraging and facilitating reasonable access to those books and periodicals. Suing the university is a terrible idea, nor is it sensible to price to the limit on what students might be recommended to read. E-reserves, digital course packs, are good ideas and publishers should not be pricing in such a way as to prevent them from working.