At several hundred dollars per semester, the cost of course materials can be a sizable burden for many students. For students who purchase coursepacks from Excel Test Preparation, that burden might get a bit heavier. Last week, a federal district court ruled that Excel was violating copyright laws by not paying fees to publishers. And while there is a valid need to clear up the legal issues surrounding copyright laws that affect students, infringing upon students’ access to knowledge is problematic. This ruling underscores the need for copyright laws to be friendly to students in the education process, but more importantly should serve as a reminder for professors to make more of their course materials available online.

Federal District Court Judge Avern Cohn issued a statement Nov. 2 siding with several publishers alleging that Excel had committed copyright infringement. In June 2007, Blackwell Publishing, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, SAGE Publications and John Wiley & Sons filed suit against Excel and claimed the company had committed copyright infringement on 33 documents. Excel was targeted because, unlike other copy shops in Ann Arbor, it wasn’t paying fees to publishers. Excel owner Norman Miller claimed that since students copied the information for their own personal use, the company wasn’t violating copyright laws. But the federal district court disagreed, ruling last week that copyrighted materials were being sold for profit and without payment of appropriate fees.

Excel’s practice of not paying the publishing fees may seem questionable, especially considering that the company was in competition with local businesses that were following the letter of the law and paying the fees. But opaque copyright laws that fail to clarify what is or is not “fair use” for college students are at least partly to blame. These laws need clarification so that all copy shops can follow clear, consistent regulations.

But in formulating a consistent legal definition, it should be taken into account that Excel was able to offer its services at half the price of other Ann Arbor copy shops because it didn’t pay publishing fees — providing cheaper coursepacks for students. Making course materials less expensive is important. When course materials are too expensive, some students have no choice but to not of buy them and suffer the consequences. Copy businesses need to be able to provide materials to students at a low cost, and if copyright laws prevent this from happening, it might be the laws that need to change.

Luckily, many professors are aware of this, and already post their required reading materials online for students. Moving academic materials online is an important trend that should become the norm for University classes whenever possible. Online access to course materials can negate some of the costs associated with buying and printing texts, and gives students more options. It also makes knowledge more widely available through the Internet.

But students in many classes will continue to need access to hard copies of their materials. For this reason, copy shops will continue to serve a vital purpose and require laws that understand the services they offer to college students.

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