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An IRAC Illustration: Do Professors Violate Copyright Law When They Copy Articles for Students?

This article was written for the American Bar Association for Law Students and may look better on their site:

The IRAC method of legal reasoning and writing is fundamental to many entry-level law courses. It represents the acronym for Issue, Rule, Analysis/Application, and Conclusion. The method is helpful once understood, but it can be difficult to learn and teach. This article illustrates how to use the IRAC method by employing it to address a practical legal question facing many professors and students today: Do professors violate copyright law when they copy articles for students?

This legal question arises when professors assign articles for students to read from publications like the Wall Street Journal that provide access to only a limited number of free articles per month. Students who attempt to access more than the limited number of articles in a month are denied access unless they purchase a subscription. Professors and students may wonder if it would violate copyright law for these professors to make copies of the articles and give them to students who would otherwise not read the articles because they are unwilling or unable to pay for a subscription.

IRAC: Issue

The Issue in IRAC is the legal question one is trying to answer. It can be difficult to identify this question in complex or personal situations. For example, imagine that a professor is copying an article for a student that is defamatory, invades an individual’s privacy, compromises national security, contains trade secrets or child pornography, or involves important constitutional questions about free speech and academic freedom. It is tempting—and natural—to want to explore all or at least the most sensational of these issues, but answering all of these questions may not be essential to the real legal question that needs to be answered. For example, if you are the person who feels that you were defamed or had your privacy invaded or your speech silenced, it may be difficult to identify that the real issue is about copyright infringement and not legal issues surrounding defamation, invasion of privacy, or free speech.

Multiple IRACs and IRACs within IRACs

Legal questions may contain multiple issues or even issues within issues. The strength of the IRAC method requires boiling down potentially complex legal scenarios into specific, answerable legal questions. For example, if you are a potential plaintiff in the example above, you may have two specific IRACs: 1) Is the defendant liable for defamation? 2) Is the defendant liable for invasion of privacy? These are two distinct legal questions that you would want to address individually using two separate IRACs.

It is also common to have an IRAC within an IRAC. This often occurs after a rule statement. For example, if your issue was, “Is the defendant liable for defamation,” your rule statement may define defamation as a 1) false, 2) defamatory, 3) statement of fact, 4) of or concerning the plaintiff, that is 5) published to a third party. These five elements must be established to prove that someone is liable for defamation. It would then be helpful to analyze these elements in a series of five separate mini-IRACs asking, “Was the statement false, was the statement defamatory, was the statement a statement of fact, was the statement of or concerning the plaintiff, and was the statement published to a third party?” Each question would be its own IRAC with its own rule applied and analyzed to a logical conclusion.

For this article, the legal issue we will explore is provided: Do professors violate copyright law when they copy articles for students? In the process of answering this question, we will also discover the need to answer a mini-IRAC within this IRAC asking, “Does a professor copying articles for students qualify as a ‘fair use’ under Section 107 of the Copyright Code?”

Helpful tips: Phrase your issue statement as a question. Questions end with a question mark. Issue statements that begin with the word “whether” are confusing and lose the power to identify a real question that demands an answer.

IRAC: Rule

The Rule is the law that will provide the authority needed to answer the legal question identified in the issue. If the issue were about defamation, we would cite the applicable state or federal statutes on defamation. In our case, we are asking about copyright infringement, and so we need to look to the U.S. Copyright Code. The U.S. Copyright Code protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” (17 U.S. Code § 102). However, Section 107 of the Copyright Code specifically allows copying for what it calls a “fair use…for the purpose of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research” (17 U.S. Code § 107).

In addition to looking at the words in an applicable statute, it is also important to see how prior courts have interpreted and applied the statutes because their interpretations create the precedent rules that future cases will follow. Here are examples of how prior courts have defined fair use:

Not a Fair Use: Setting up an “off-campus, for profit, copy shop” to copy and sell anthologies to college students is not a fair use. Courts did not like that the protected materials were copied for a commercial purpose and for the “same intrinsic purpose” as the copyrighted material (Princeton Univ. Press v. Mich. Document Servs., 99 F.3d 1381).

Fair Use: A court determined that copying is a fair use when done by “…nonprofit institutions, devoted solely to the advancement and dissemination of medical knowledge…[that] normally restricted copying on an individual scientist’s request to a single copy of an article and to articles of less than fifty pages…[and] medical science would be seriously hurt if such photocopying were stopped…[and] there was no showing of economic injury to publisher” (Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States, 203 Ct. Cl. 74).

Helpful tips: Rules should be narrowly focused on the legal question addressed in the issue yet broad enough to address the intricacies of a complex fact pattern. If you are writing an IRAC essay for a school or state bar exam, your rule statement should state the precise definition of the law that controls your issue. If your rule statement is incomplete, your analysis will fail to address all of the nuances your answer should contemplate.

IRAC: Analysis/Application

The Application/Analysis section compares the facts of prior cases to our new situation. In our case, university professors have students who cannot read articles that the professors assign because the students cannot or will not spend money to read an article after they have reached their limit of free articles per month. And the professors do not receive any economic benefit from giving these articles to students. Are these facts more like the unfair “off-campus, for profit, copy shop” or the “fair use” of a nonprofit institution sharing knowledge with no showing of economic injury to the plaintiff?

If a student will not spend money for the article, and the professor and university will not spend money for the student to access the article, then one could argue that copying the article and providing it to the student would not deprive the publisher of any economic benefit because no one in the scenario is going to pay the publisher for the student to have access to the article. The question is not whether or not the publisher will be paid for the student accessing the article. The publisher will not be paid. The question is only whether the student will have access to the article.

Although it is helpful to find a case that appears to apply perfectly to a new situation—especially when it points to an outcome you desire—it is important to analyze precedent cases with different outcomes. Thorough analysis requires distinguishing why prior cases should or should not apply. The purpose of IRAC is to facilitate thoughtful, critical analysis. If the result feels like a thoughtless application of a rule…we’re probably not doing it right.

Helpful Hints: Improve your analysis by using the words “because,” “like,” and “unlike.” Using the word “because” forces you to provide some analysis instead of just a conclusion BECAUSE it requires you to finish the sentence with a clause defending your statement. Using the words “like” and “unlike” help you distinguish the facts in the current case from the facts in prior cases. For example, the facts in the current case are like the facts in the precedent “fair use” case because ___________ and unlike the facts in the “unfair use” case because _________.

IRAC: Conclusion

The conclusion should logically follow from the analysis and application of the rules to answer the question presented in the issue. It is a “therefore” statement. For example, imagine your issue is an arithmetic question. Your rule established how to add, your analysis determined that you were adding two plus two, and your conclusion might state, “Therefore, the answer is four.”

It is common for professors to say that the conclusion is less important than the process that came up with it. Although true, there are two ways to fail the conclusion section of an IRAC essay: 1) Not providing a conclusion, and 2) Providing a conclusion that does not logically follow the application/analysis of the rules.

Not Providing a Conclusion

The purpose of the IRAC format of legal reasoning and writing is to provide a logical answer to the question identified in the issue statement. In our example, we want to know if professors violate copyright law when they copy articles for students in a specific situation. Any analysis or description of the history of copyright law—however beautifully written—is ultimately useless for IRAC purposes if it fails to answer our legal question.

Providing a Conclusion That Does Not Logically Follow the Application/Analysis of the Rules

Again, the purpose of the IRAC format of legal reasoning and writing is to provide a logical answer to the question identified in the issue statement. If, throughout the analysis, we read that the current case is most like cases where courts have found that the copying is not a “fair use,” it would not logically follow to conclude that the copying is somehow fair in this similar case.

The conclusion should naturally flow from the analysis. For example:

Therefore, the limited, noncommercial classroom use of a professor copying articles for students who would not purchase them should qualify as a “fair use” under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Code. Based on the facts in our specific situation, we conclude that professors at nonprofit institutions do NOT violate copyright law if they copy articles for students when there is no economic injury to the plaintiff, no economic benefit to the professor, and “science would be seriously hurt if such photocopying were stopped”(Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States, 203 Ct. Cl. 74).

Helpful Hints: Legal analysis is like math but with ideas instead of numbers. I plus R plus A should equal C. (I + R + A = C). The wrong answer is the one that doesn’t answer the question or doesn’t add up.

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