How many lawyers does it take to tell a professor when he can make copies from a digital book?

Lots, so far. Digital distribution ought to make scholarship easy to spread, and cheap. Especially at a time when college expenses — most of which don't go for instructors or texts, but for buildings, administration, marketing, and other nonacademic needs — are driving young Americans deep into debt.

But textbook publishers are as reluctant as music publishers to give their product away for free, digital or not. So, in the absence of new law from Congress or Supreme Court rulings, university counselors have been urging professors to pay extra licensing fees for anything they copy — boosting the cost and time spent assembling coursework.

"Institutions tend to be risk-averse," and the result is extra payments for copies of longer works that have already been purchased, says Professor Shyamkrishna Balganesh, an intellectual-property and copyright expert at the University of Pennsylvania law school.

Shouldn't this be a judgment call — a place where reasonable people can set limits over what's just an excerpt used for noncommercial study, and what is so long or dependent on another work that it ought to be paid for? That's the hope in a new 350-page opinion by federal Judge Orinda D. Evans in Atlanta, in the case of Cambridge University Press (and other publishers) vs. Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University, and a long list of profs who'd posted book chapters and excerpts for students to use in their classes.

Evans posted "a landmark decision on the nature of copyright law in the digital age," in which she "rejected 69 of the 74 claims" in which publishers said they'd been ripped off by professors who assigned parts of longer works the school had already purchased to their students — while setting ground rules for "fair use" of copyrighted materials online, according to Katrina M. Quickerof Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr L.L.P., one of three firms that defended the school, in a case consolidated from hundreds of claims.

"It's the first in-depth analysis of how copyright laws" will apply to digital publications in higher education, according to Quicker.

Judge Evans' opus "may be the longest copyright decision I've ever seen," Rutgers-Camden Law School Professor Michael Carrier told me. Carrier is the author of a copyright and intellectual-property textbook, Innovation for the 21st Century, published by Oxford University, one of the complaining publishers.

That length and depth is a good thing, says Penn's Balganesh. In a time of formulaic, "rubber stamp" opinions, "this is refreshing" and "open-ended," reinforcing standards that help scholars distinguish between permissible and exploitive copying, like the standards the publishers challenged at Georgia State.

"There's no question this is a decision in favor of the nonprofit institutions, not a publisher-friendly decision," Balganesh added, predicting publishing groups will appeal. But at least for now, "this decision means university general counsels will relax." Though not publishers, including the named plaintiff, Cambridge University Press, which plans to bring out Balganesh's own book, Intellectual Property and the Common Law, shortly.

Aztec y Azteca

Aztec Capital Partners, the firm formed by Philadelphia lawyer (and former city solicitor) Ken Trujillo and his backers to turn WHAT 1340 AM into Spanish-(or at least, Trujillo says, "Spanglish"-) language) Radio El Zol Philly last year, says it's signed a joint-venture deal with Terry Crosby's Dallas-based Una Vez Mas ("One More Time") management firm to handle local ad sales and begin local programming for Mexican American-oriented Azteca Americas WZPA TV 33.

The station has been available on cable and satellite TV for the past year; Aztec Capital will now invest in "local commercials and eventually programming," El Zol manager Uriel Rendon told me. "We're going to run local videos, weekly news shows, and entertainment programs focusing on the Mexican market" in Philadelphia and its suburbs. The Azteca network is owned by Mexico-based TV Azteca SA de CV.

Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.