Custom Copies, a photocopy shop based in Gainesville, Fla., finds itself in an unusual situation, facing a high-profile lawsuit for alleged copyright infringement, after settling one just three years ago. The independent shop’s locations serve hundreds of University of Florida students and faculty members each year -- and the case appears to be a new attempt by publishers to send a message to professors and students that copyright is not to be ignored.
Details of the initial settlement remain secret, but the new lawsuit, filed in federal court on Wednesday, has six publishers charging that the shop unlawfully photocopied and sold several copyrighted documents many times over without getting permission. The publishers say that the shop, which also did business as Orange and Blue Textbooks, failed multiple times to obtain copyright permission from either the publishers directly or through Copyright Clearance Center. The publishers include Blackwell Publishing, Elsevier, Inc., Pearson Education, Inc., Harvard Business School Publishing, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and SAGE Publications, Inc.
“You would think that once -- not even once, really -- would be enough to learn the lesson,” said Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores, a trade association that represents the higher education retail industry. “If the allegations turn out to be true, this is definitely a disappointing situation.”
Libertowski said she wasn’t aware of another copy shop being sued in such a short period under similar circumstances. She noted that her organization offers free materials  on copyright law for shops and individuals.
A lawyer for the publishers, William S. Strong, had strong words for the shop’s owner, Kenneth Roberts. “Mr. Roberts is well aware that permission is required to copy published materials in coursepacks,” he said in a press release issued Thursday. “Custom Copies’ illegal infringement compromises the ability of publishers to produce the work of writers and researchers, who as a result do not receive all of their rightful compensation. Moreover, it gives Custom Copies an illegal and unfair advantage over its law-abiding competitors.”
The company has paid big bucks -- to the tune of over $175,000, according to invoices -- since 2003 to various publishers for rights to reproduce materials for university coursepacks. Despite detailed record keeping and accounting of its practices, Roberts said Thursday that it is possible that “mistakes were made.”
“They’re being deliberately misleading, making us look like criminals,” he said. “This could have easily been solved by a phone call, rather than another lawsuit.
Lawyers representing the publishers could not be reached on Thursday to answer that charge.
“We already know that we are under a microscope,” added Roberts. “We go out of our way to ensure that we are complying with copyright law.”
Roberts said that he believes the publishers may be specifically targeting his shop in order to “drive us out of business.” “We have absolutely no motive to put ourselves or our customers in danger,” he said. “We all want to be able to eat and put a roof over our heads.”
Bill Burger, vice president of marketing for the Copyright Clearance Center, a nonprofit licensing agent, characterized Roberts’s argument as a “desperate plea.” “If he were operating legally, the publishers would have zero incentive to put someone out of business,” he said. “Why would they sue their distribution channels, which help them get money?”
Even Roberts noted that his chance of prevailing seemed slim, in light of a 1991 federal court decision that says commercial copying always requires permission.
“Something might have been missed -- mistakes naturally occur,” said Roberts. “But why?” he asked. “Why couldn’t this have been solved with a bloody phone call?”