It is with dismay that I read in today’s New York Times that three distinguished academic presses, Oxford, Cambridge, and Sage, are suing Georgia State for copyright infringement with regard to course websites. I cannot know the merits of the case, but two points are telling. One is that the transaction seems to be between attorneys for the presses and Georgia State, not between the leadership of the universities. For all of the flowery language that we often hear from university presses about the importance of a robust nonprofit publishing sector in service to the academy, the issue here is plainly about the profits of the “nonprofit” publishing sector. Perhaps I am wrong, and the Vice-Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge have been in touch with the President of Georgia State to discuss the missions of learning and teaching, but I’d bet not.

The second point is that, according to the Times, Cambridge University Press licenses pages for electronic reserves at 17 cents per student per page, for up to 20 percent of a book. The marginal cost to Cambridge of permitting such use is the billing cost, so the 17 cents is essentially all profit. If a student is willing to go to the effort, of course, she can take the book out of the library, and photocopy the pages for five or six cents each. The photocopy alternative is not as useful to the student as the scanned version on the course site, but note that Cambridge bears exactly none of the costs of making the scanned version available; Georgia State bears that cost.

Digital technologies have the capability of greatly reducing the overall social cost of making scholarly materials available to college students. Cambridge’s mission statement would seem to suggest something other than the lawsuits as a principal mode of engagement with other institutions of higher learning: “The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.”

Things have come to a pretty pass when academic institutions sue each other over academic matters. Even if the publishers prove to be right on the merits, the lawsuit ought to be the last resort, and student use of academic materials produced by academic institutions ought be priced at something like marginal cost, rather than at the price that maximizes profit. And one wonders why three rich and distinguished institutions would go after an urban university that is much less well-resourced.