I'll never understand what makes some people and organizations freak out when users of their systems make better versions. A decade ago we wrote about two examples of this
: when a genealogist made a much better version of the interface to search through Ellis Island's data, and when someone built a better version of Odeon Cinema's website to work with non-IE browsers. In both cases, the official websites freaked out that someone might make a better version without permission.
The same kind of thing played out last week, with a story you might have heard of, concerning Yale blocking access
to a site built by a pair of students (two years ago), creating a better course catalog. Unlike Yale's official course catalog, this one made it easy to see class evaluations and teacher ratings. Yale came up with a variety of excuses for this block, first saying that the site's name, YBB+ (for Yale Blue Book Plus) violated the university's trademark on Yale Bluebook. After the students changed the name to CourseTable, the university blocked it again, claiming it was "malicious."
When people pointed out how ridiculous that was, Yale told the two students that the real problem was that they had made it too easy
to see that course evaluation data, which Yale did not approve
for use of in that manner. Of course, data is data. And I don't see how Yale has any legitimate claim to block how anyone uses that data. You can't copyright the data. The best Yale could come up with was the silly claim that this was "violating the appropriate use policy" and "breaching the trust the faculty had put in the college to act as stewards of their teaching evaluations." That still doesn't make much sense, other than that the University wanted to try to hide data it had released itself.
, after all of that, Yale also
claimed that CourseTable violated the copyright in the course descriptions
. I would think that the developers would have an incredibly strong fair use claim here (use in education, not interfering with the market "value" of the original, etc.).
Either way, another Yale student, Sean Haufler, saw how ridiculous all of this was, and decided, what the heck, he could write a system that clearly gets around all of Yale's supposed complaints: he created a Chrome Extension, so that the same information from CourseTable/YBB+ shows up whenever anyone using it surfs through Yale's official site. He notes that this seems to get around all of Yale's claimed issues:
I built a Chrome Extension called Banned Bluebook. It modifies the Chrome browser to add CourseTable’s functionality to Yale’s official course selection website, showing the course’s average rating and workload next to each search result. It also allows students to sort these courses by rating and workload. This is the original site, and this is the site with Banned Bluebook enabled (this demo uses randomly generated rating values).
Banned Bluebook never stores data on any servers. It never talks to any non-Yale servers. Moreover, since my software is smarter at caching data locally than the official Yale course website, I expect that students using this extension will consume less bandwidth over time than students without it. Don’t believe me? You can read the source code. No data ever leaves Yale’s control. Trademarks, copyright infringement, and data security are non-issues. It’s 100% kosher.
As Haufler points out, he's hoping to demonstrate to Yale's administration that not only was this whole censorship effort stupid and futile, but that if it's granting students access to data, it shouldn't then try to block how they use that data. It seems especially troubling that an institution of higher learning would do this kind of thing.
Just as I was finishing up this post, I learned that Yale dean Mary Miller has admitted to perhaps reacting too hastily
, and recognizing that technology has changed quite a bit. While she still seems to claim that using the data violates an acceptable use policy, she seems at least willing to consider this:
Although the University acted in keeping with its policies and principles, I see now that it erred in trying to compel students to have as a reference the superior set of data that the complete course evaluations provide. That effort served only to raise concerns about the proper use of network controls. In the end, students can and will decide for themselves how much effort to invest in selecting their courses.
Technology has moved faster than the faculty could foresee when it voted to make teaching evaluations available to students over a decade ago, and questions of who owns data are evolving before our very eyes. Just this weekend, we learned of a tool that replicates YBB+'s efforts without violating Yale’s appropriate use policy, and that leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us. What we now see is that we need to review our policies and practices. To that end, the Teaching, Learning, and Advising Committee, which originally brought teaching evaluations online, will take up the question of how to respond to these developments, and the appropriate members of the IT staff, along with the University Registrar, will review our responses to violations of University policy. We will also state more clearly the requirement/expectation for student software developers to consult with the University before creating applications that depend on Yale data, and we will create an easy means for them to do so.