The Court Decision On Streaming Shakespeare At UCLA — What It Really Means

UCLA just won a court case over DVD streaming of Shakespeare plays, but the decision is actually a bigger victory for another school — the University of Michigan which is being sued by the Author’s Guild over its ambitious project to scan and preserve millions of library books.

The significance of the UCLA case is not, as many have reported, about what consumers can do with technology, but instead about universities’ immunity from federal lawsuits.

For those who missed it, UCLA created a fuss with copyright owners when it decided to stream Shakespeare plays to its faculty and students. UCLA librarians believe streaming media is a good way to share the school’s DVD collection — especially as it has already paid to license the DVD’s. A group representing copyright owners didn’t much think much of the idea, however, and sued UCLA in Los Angeles federal court to stop streaming Shakespeare. The group believes the school is only entitled to loan the DVD’s or play them in the classroom.

When U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall chose to dismiss the lawsuit this week, many regarded the ruling as a vindication for educators and for “fair use” (a copyright principle that allows people to make certain uses of a work without getting into trouble.)

The decision, however, isn’t really about copyright. Instead, Judge Marshall threw out the case because UCLA, as a state institution, benefits from a doctrine called “sovereign immunity” — which means the school can’t be sued in federal court without its consent. She also found that the group who brought the case didn’t have the standing to sue because they were not the actual owners of the copyrights in question.

This means the decision is hardly a ringing victory for fair use advocates. (On the other hand, some academics have called attention to parts of the ruling that may open the door for a more liberal interpretation of how schools can use copyrighted materials.)

The real significance of the decision is instead about the impact it will have on the Authors’ Guild lawsuit against the University of Michigan over book-scanning. The authors want to stop the school from working with Google (NSDQ: GOOG) to scan books and to seize the HathiTrust, a digital collection containing millions of works.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, the California court’s affirmation of the sovereign immunity doctrine will boost Michigan’s case that it can’t be dragged into court in the first place. Lawyers for the Author’s Guild no doubt knew about the immunity hurdle all along but that hurdle will now seem an inch higher after this week’s ruling.

The rather unseemly site of writers suing librarians and trying to seize their servers has been unfolding for weeks now. Librarians like Columbia’s Kenneth Crews have already predicted a number of possible outcomes for the case but the UCLA decision may force the guild to try a new tactic to attack the digital book collection. Specifically, it may try to get around the sovereign immunity hurdle by instead going after one of the non-state institutions like Cornell that is cooperating with Michigan on the project.

UCLA streaming decision
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