St. Louis University GC at the Center of Odd Copyright Fight
Tensions between the president of Saint Louis University and its faculty made an unexpected turn into the realm of copyright lawand the universitys general counsel is at the center of the storm.
According to the Riverfront Times, SLU VP and GC William Kauffman, in an apparent attempt to stop a faculty survey on the embattled university president Father Lawrence Biondi, has threatened legal action against the professor drafting the survey. On what grounds? Copyright infringement.
How did Missouri campus politics turn into a copyright fight? The St. Louis Beacon reports that in late March, [a]s part of an effort designed to smooth over tensions that arose when faculty and student groups approved a no-confidence vote in [SLU President Rev. Lawrence] Biondi and told trustees he should be fired, the university issued a campus climate survey that was designed to give trustees a sense of what faculty, staff and students on campus thought in advance of the final board of trustees meeting of the academic year, scheduled for May 4.
That survey went out on Monday, March 25. In a timeline laid out by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the next day some faculty members said the wording on the survey doesnt reflect the discontent with the school's president . . . Their complaint was the survey contains only one question about the president, and instead uses general references to the university.
And one day later, in the timeline, the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors [AAUP] announced it may release a parallel survey that would indeed replace the university with the president.
Cue the GC.
On Thursday, March 28, as the supplemental survey was being prepared, Kauffman sent a letter to SLU professor Steven Harris, president of the SLU chapter of the AAUP. The RT posted the full letter here and noted this highlight:
Be aware that the copying of, use of and/or reproduction of Saint Louis University's copyrighted work is a violation of federal law. Moreover, the use of any derivative of the copyrighted works likewise constitutes an infringement of the University's rights.
Any infringement will be addressed by the University and could result in legal action. In addition to injunctive relief, other available remedies include damages (either actual or statutory) and the possibility of an award of attorney fees under federal copyright law.
The universitys argument, as laid out by Kauffman, is that any new survey that is distributed seeking information about campus climate would infringe on the universitys copyright, according to the Beacon. The newspaper said that Harris had consulted experts on copyright law who said the universitys stance would not hold up in court, but that view would not necessarily stop SLU from pursuing legal action against him and the AAUP chapter.
CorpCounsel.com contacted Kauffmans office for comment, but he did not reply.
The RT notes that not only has the GCs IP threat gotten the attention of the national office of the American Association of University Professors, but Harris has also filed a complaint against SLU with the American Civil Liberties Union, which the Post-Dispatch says, ask[s] that organization to support the association's contention that Kauffman's caution is an attempt at prior restraint, violates freedom of speech and constitutes harassment.
It seems that Kauffmans initial goal was to quiet the contretemps between the SLU president and faculty, but as the RT notes:
The irony, Harris points out, is that SLU officials are obviously trying to avoid bad press around a survey that reiterates the overwhelming no confidence in Biondi, but instead are earning themselves more controversial news reports on this clear intimidation tactic.
This is not something you do lightly, he says, noting that he and all professors, via the SLU faculty manual, have protections of academic freedom.