Do Students Have Copyright to Their Own Notes?
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.
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.”