The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently added a decision to the small but growing body of law surrounding state open-records laws and copyright protection.
The case is National Council on Teacher Quality v. Minnesota State Colleges & Universities. Here’s the background. National Council on Teacher Quality sent a request under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act—Minnesota’s open-records act—for copies of course syllabi maintained by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, known as MnSCU (and pronounced min-skew). MnSCU responded, saying (1) its faculty members’ intellectual-property rights might be violated by the National Counsel’s later use of those materials, and (2) MnSCU might be subject to liability under the copyright act.
National Counsel sued and won. The district court concluded that National Counsel’s proposed use was fair use under the copyright act. Because the proposed use was fair use, the copyright act was no defense to MnSCU’s failure to disclose the syllabi.
MnSCU appealed and lost. MnSCU based its appellate argument primarily on its concern that copying the syllabi might expose MnSCU to copyright liability when National Counsel engages in conduct that does not constitute fair use. The court did not consider whether MnSCU’s copying of the documents itself violates the Copyright Act. The court of appeals held that once fair use is established, Minnesota’s open-records law does not allow an agency to withhold information based on a theoretical, future violation of the Copyright Act.
One amicus brief raised an interesting argument, claiming that even allowing National Counsel to view the syllabi—without copying—would violate the Copyright Act. The amicus reasoned that the viewing would constitute a “public display” of the authors works and would therefore violate of the owners’ rights under the Copyright Act. The court noted neither the statute nor cases supported argument that allowing a single party to view a copyrighted work might be a “public display” that would require the copyright holder’s permission.
The court’s case holding is as follows:
A state agency cannot rely on the Federal Copyright Act to refuse to disclose data that is the subject of a request for disclosure under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act after the district court determines, without dispute, that the requestor intends only “fair use” of the data as defined by the copyright act.
The time to seek review from the Minnesota Supreme Court has not yet run, so this case may not yet be over. Stay tuned.