Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States
Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States is a case that was heard by the United States Court of Claims in 1974, resolved in 1975, and later upheld by the Supreme Court. The plaintiff in Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States was the publisher of 37 medical journals. The four that were involved in Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States were "Medicine," "Journal of Immunology," "Gastroenterology" and "Pharmacological Reviews." All four were published on a for-profit basis. The number of subscriptions to each journal varied from approximately 3,100 to 7,000. The majority of the revenue generated by these journals came from these subscription fees.
The defendants in Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States were the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM), both operating under the auspices of the government's Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The NIH regularly provided single photocopies of articles for free which did not have to be returned to its researchers. At the time, the NIH subscribed to roughly 3,000 journals. Copies of these journals were provided on request without any attempt to determine the reason for the request. In 1970, it was estimated that roughly 93,000 copies were made of articles.
The NLM performed the same service for libraries who in turn passed the copies along to those patrons who requested it as part of an interlibrary loan program. LIke the NIH, the NLM made no attempt to ascertain who was requesting the copies or the reasons therefore. In 1968, the NLM changed its institutional guidelines to ensure that, in most cases, an individual could request no more than 20 copies in a month, while an institution could request no more than 30 during that same period.
Williams & Wilkins Co. charged that these photocopies violated its copyright. In considering the case of Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States, the United States Court of Claims had to establish its own precedent. The decision rendered in Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States proceeded on several assumptions. One was that the NIH and NLM, as non-profit organizations devoted to medical research, could not be said to be attempting to profit from making these copies. The court also noted that both institutions had created and enforced reasonable rules regarding making copies to safeguard against abuses.
In its opinion on Williams & Wilkins Co. v. United States, the court went on to note its belief that to put an end to these copies would serve as a serious impediment to medical research. Furthermore, upon an examination of the financial records of the publisher, the court found no proof that they had been financially injured by these practices. Finally, the court noted its reluctance to impeded such a useful practice and urged Congress to pass new legislation to clarify the legality of these practices. The court ruled against Williams & Wilkins Co.