Do Students Have Copyright to Their Own Notes?

| February 6, 2012 | 16 Comments
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By Erica Perez, California Watch

California State University and University of California campuses are taking new steps to limit what students can do with their class notes: At least one CSU Chico student recently was reported to judicial affairs for selling notes to a website, while a newly updated UC Berkeley policy restricts how students share their notes with others.

The policies raise questions about whether instructors or students have copyrights to the notes students take in class. While the California Education Code prohibits students and others from selling class notes – and many campuses have policies that also ban unauthorized note-selling – critics say students, not instructors, own the copyright to their own notes.

Some university officials say faculty members have the right to protect their professional reputation – they don’t want inaccurate or low-quality notes to be attributed to them. But others say the university policies are restricting students’ free speech.

“Given the amount of money students are paying to go to school right now, to … confront them with these policies and say, ‘You don’t even have the right to use your own notes any way you want,’ seems to be the wrong message to be sending,” said Jason M. Schultz, assistant clinical professor of law at UC Berkeley and director of the university’s Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic.

The CSU and UC systems have made efforts to shut down private note-selling websites for some time. As early as 1999, the note-selling website Versity.com sparked officials’ furor at UC Berkeley. In fall 2010, CSU sent a cease-and-desist order to NoteUtopia, which allows students to upload course notes, study guides and outlines to a website, then set a price and earn cash for their work.

“There’s a First Amendment issue as well. If I take notes in class, and I want to share them, that’s speech.”

More recently, both UC and CSU have sent cease-and-desist letters to Notehall, a note-selling website owned by Santa Clara-based Chegg.

CSU sent its letter to Chegg in January after at least one student was reported to student judicial affairs for selling notes through the service. CSU Chico’s student newspaper, The Orion, reported that two students were referred to judicial affairs, but Lisa Root, the university’s director of student judicial affairs, said there has been only one case involving the note-selling policy in the past three years. She could not comment on the specific case. The one student named in the Orion story declined to talk to a reporter Wednesday.

It’s unclear whether the student was sanctioned or whether other universities in California have sought disciplinary action against students who have sold their notes to third parties.

The letter from CSU to Chegg cited CSU’s own student policies and the California Education Code, both of which prohibit selling, distributing or publishing class notes for a commercial purpose.

Notehall’s website indicates the company is no longer accepting notes from CSU or UC students. Users who try to upload notes for CSU or UC campuses see an error message.

“Unfortunately, No More Notes!” the message begins. “The California State University Student Conduct Code prohibits students from selling class notes, and subjects violators to potential disciplinary action. Out of respect for this policy, Notehall does not offer its note taking services at your school. We apologize for the inconvenience, and share your disappointment with this CSU policy decision.”

In a written statement, a spokeswoman for Chegg said the company is fully compliant with California law and is “working to ensure that our services fall within what is acceptable from one state to the next.”

But Berkeley’s Schultz questioned whether states can prevent students from selling their notes. Instructors have almost no intellectual property rights to what students write down in class, he said. Faculty members may have intellectual property in the books they write, articles they publish and even possibly in the lecture notes they write for themselves, but students own the copyright on their own notes, he said.

“Copyright is a federal law, and generally when state laws conflict with federal laws, federal law wins,” Schultz said. “Perhaps more important is there’s a First Amendment issue as well. If I take notes in class, and I want to share them, that’s speech.”

UC’s legal office also sent a cease-and-desist letter to Notehall in November 2010, prompted at least in part by complaints at UC Davis about Notehall, said Jan Carmikle, senior intellectual property officer at UC Davis.

The university told Notehall that the company was violating California law, potentially infringing on copyright law, and encouraging students to violate university policy and risk discipline.

Carmikle said many professors and instructors at UC Davis who found notes for their classes on Notehall were indignant about it.

“For a lot of them it’s a reputational quality-control issue. They take a lot of pride in giving really high-quality lectures,” she said. “If a D-student can put these notes up, that’s not good to anybody. It’s not good for other students and not good for the instructor.”

Schultz argued that faculty members can easily address quality issues by making clear to students that they should not trust the accuracy of unofficial class notes.

He described the policy as a trade-off between the cost of suppressing student enthusiasm for learning and sharing knowledge against the benefit of protecting instructors’ reputations – something they can achieve through other means.

“I just don’t think the trade-off is a very good trade-off for public education,” he said.

At UC Berkeley, a joint academic senate/administrative task force recently revised the university policy on course notes. The new policy [PDF], which took effect in January, continues to ban the unauthorized sale of class notes. It also says students can share notes with other students only if they’re both enrolled in the class at the same time. In theory, that means a student could face disciplinary action for sharing his or her notes from last semester with a student currently enrolled in the same class.

Philip Stark, a member of the task force and professor of statistics at UC Berkeley, said the policy should have included more careful definitions of “course notes.” At issue, he said, are transcript-style notes, not a student’s own synthesis of lecture material.

“I can’t imagine any action being taken against a student who says, ‘Here’s the bullet items from this class.’ That’s not what this is intended to address,” he said. “It’s intended to address someone representing something as the instructor’s words.”

Stark, who is also vice chairman of the statistics department, said the policy is aimed at maintaining the integrity – and accuracy – of the instructor’s lecture.

“It’s my words, it’s my performance, it’s my material. I want you to learn from it, but I don’t want you to represent to someone else that these are my words if I haven’t had a chance to vet them,” he said.

Schultz said he’s concerned the universities are moving in the wrong direction.

“It’s a policy against sharing knowledge. The Internet and networked technologies have been disrupting, one by one, every business model that has tried to put gates around information,” he said. “These universities have to decide how they’re going to handle this. They can embrace it or suppress it.”

Erica Perez is an investigative reporter for California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.
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  • Tedcurran

    Interesting post. I wonder if the “selling” part of this story complicates the issue? As an educator I students to Co-create class notes via a course wiki so everyone can benefit from each others work. I had not considered the copyright implications– mostly because students are doing what I want them to do with course materials. The unstated assumption here is that students who buy notes do so because they chose to skip class? If that’s the case, it might make sense to address this as a discipline issue rather than a free speech issue?

  • http://twitter.com/mqskerr Sharon Kerr

    Ownership of information and knowledge … an interesting conundrum for institutions that  have been built on the back of developing and selling the same.   

    • Cis108

      Or, professors could stop teaching canned classes so that notes from one class would be no good for another class. As a professor, I take great pride in teaching current, relevant classes each and every semester.

  • Rockethound

    Strange.  How is this different from the lecture note service provided by UC Berkeley itself?  It used to be called “Black Lightning” when I was a student at Cal in the eighties, though now it is 
    https://notes.berkeley.edu/index.aspx

  • http://twitter.com/infonote Infonote

    They should just post the notes on their own blog and they will be safe IMHO.

  • http://twitter.com/mopsydizzle mopsyd

    Strikes me more as the cult of academia attempting to suppress the  distribution of free knowledge so they can continue to get paid. Same reason they take such offense to Wikipedia, although you will get any number of jargon filled pompous diatribes about quality skirting the issue if you were to ask them. Were they truly committed to preserving intellectual integrity, they’d be combing wikis for errors, not attempting to damn the entire platform. If they dislike things like this, perhaps they should do something to augment the astronomically high cost of education the kids are facing these days.

    • Sanguinnus

      The “cult of academia”? These are *people* you’re talking about, people who have spent years in school learning to refine both their knowledge and their craft of teaching. This knowledge isn’t “free,” as you so blithely assert — hence the market value of notes distilled from their hard-won expertise, obtained from library and archival research, disseminated to undergraduate students who seem to be concerned simply with turning a quick buck. And Wikipedia, by the way, is under fire in academia because when you open-source knowledge production, you open the door to factual inaccuracy. Professors don’t have time to “comb wikis for inaccuracies” — they don’t pay the rent on that — and they aren’t the ones responsible for the “astronomically high cost of education” the “kids are facing these days.” Hold administrations and state legislatures up against the wall for those charges. If the average undergraduate student cared about the quality of education he or she was receiving, maybe he or she would be taking their own notes (with an eye toward using them as study materials rather than for profit) instead of buying them from a shortcut service. You know nothing, by the way, about the realities of being an educator at this level.

      • http://twitter.com/mopsydizzle mopsyd

         If you are part of the system that is a problem, you are part of the problem. Buck passing is a classic example of how bias and denial skew people’s rational evaluation of an idea they do not necessarily agree with. That bias, particularly as it applies to people who mock competing sources of any resource, including knowledge, is precisely the problem. Wiki for example has a very strenuous level of public scrutiny placed on updates to pages. The way academics talk about it you would think that anyone can update any article without any level of scrutiny and that the entire system is a giant mess. That is a particularly short sighted opinion considering that the general accuracy of Wikipedia has been found to exceed most dictionaries and encyclopedias. If you have an issue with something, particularly a public service that is open for anyone from the community to participate in, it would behoove you to participate if you find it lacking. Particularly when the vast majority of your students are using it in your classes on a daily basis. Again, all people are prone to bias, and particularly so when they seclude themselves in any small community that does not get very much exposure to the general public. The more bias you have, the more cult-like your general attitude gets. A good example would be your assumption that simply because I made a point about a particular group being prone to bias that I must be against the entire institution, which is way off the mark. For the record, I know a great deal about being an educator at that level because I interact with them frequently. Thank you for demonstrating your particular bias through your unplaced assumption and demonstrating my point perfectly. I would think if you are as familiar with proper logical discourse as you indicate you would know better than to base your argument on a point without any particular substance to back it up, but I suppose you should be thanked for inadvertently backing up my argument by letting your pride get the best of you and posing an irrational retort. Hence the point about “pompous diatribes about quality skirting the issue” from the original post. Kindly refute the central point with solid reference if you care to continue this discourse, as is commonly appreciated as the most effective way of debating in all levels of intellectual discourse rather than resorting to ad hominem assumptions like a generally out of touch cultist. Thank you.

  • Dave Morris

    It’s got nothing to do with the First Amendment. Copyright definitely resides with the author – in this case, the student who took the notes, presuming the notes are not a verbatim record of the lecturer’s words. But copyright can be waived or transferred, and there’s no great complexity about how to do that. Precedents abound.

    • Ismael Negron

      The issue is not simply one of authoring, as of source of “inspiration”. You can be the undisputed author of something, but, if you based that something on the work of others (i.e. a lecture in this particular case), then you might not legally have the copyrights.

      This is most definitively not a simple issue.

  • Arik

    Another approach, can be a social approach – were students actually can enrich each other by sharing notes. Look at studyers.com: it is (I think) the perfect tool for note taking in class as well as sharing the lesson notes with each other.

  • http://twitter.com/idaj idaj

    Students should own the copyright to their own notes. This is another example of education not keeping up with the way information availability has changed. For more, see http://idajones.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/417/

  • http://twitter.com/r_w_wright R. Wright

    Why are there still college classes where students sit there and write “notes”? What is the purpose of textbooks? Gutenberg must be rolling in his grave. (cf. http://entropysite.oxy.edu/gutenberg_method.html )

  • http://thefilesource.com/ rparentjr2005

    Of course students can copyright anything they want, as long as they didn’t sign a disclaimer saying the university owns whatever they do.

  • Allen St. John

    So if I understand this correctly… (most likely I don’t…) The current professors are infringing on the works of their own professors from when they were students…

    >“It’s my words, it’s my performance, it’s my material. I want you to learn from it, but I don’t want you to represent to someone else that these are my words if I haven’t had a chance to vet them,” he said.

    What if this professor’s professor had said that?

    • Chris Alarcon

      That whole quote is contradicting. As a college student this frustrates me because on top of paying high tuition , universities are going to prohibit sharing your own notes. Whether or no the professors like it, we payed for that class and can share our information the way we desire.