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Copyright Suit Prompts Counterclaim From Unorthodox Research Library

A copyright lawsuit that several publishers filed in June against a maverick scholar’s online research library has prompted a countersuit raising fair-use arguments—as well as a claim that the publishers are trying to stifle innovation.

The original lawsuit was filed by in federal court in Boston by the Harvard Business School, the University of Chicago, and the publishing company John Wiley & Sons against Michael R. Lissack and the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, of which Mr. Lissack is the director. The nonprofit institute’s Web site says it focuses on “social complexity theory.”

Among other activities, the institute operates a digital library of more than 1,200 titles, and dues-paying members can check them out in two-hour blocks, provided no one else is using the same books. The texts are digital scans of hardback originals that Mr. Lissack purchased and then, after they were copied, destroyed.

The plaintiffs say Mr. Lissack’s institute has willfully disregarded copyright laws by the “unauthorized reproduction, display, and distribution” of books they published. They also say that the online library has caused them “substantial monetary harm.”

In his countersuit, Mr. Lissack argues that he has created “the closest possible digital analogue to a traditional specialized research library—providing temporary and controlled access, one borrower at a time, to lawfully purchased copies of works,” and that the library is intended to “support research and facilitate the writing of research papers.”

He also argues that he has the right under federal law “to substitute digital copies for their lawfully purchased hard copies,” and that scanning the books allows library patrons to use innovative search software he developed that he refers to as a “virtual reference librarian” helping researchers to find references similar to whatever they’ve looked up.

Mr. Lissack, a former bond trader and sometime whistle-blower, has a lively reputation for pursuing causes that he has taken to heart. On a Web page about the lawsuits, he says that “the Harvard B School folks and Wiley think that ALL digital access should be pay per use and that libraries have no rights.” He adds: “So much for the idea of academic research.” He also says the publishers’ “posture” is that the kind of innovation represented by his search software “should be stopped.”

He has asked the federal court for a jury trial.

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