Can A Professor Force Students To Destroy All Their Notes?

from the education-vs.-intellectual-property dept

One of the more interesting questions I’ve come across in the past is how does intellectual property function in an educational institution. We already know that thanks to the disastrous Bayh-Dole Act, universities have become a lot more interested in enforcing intellectual property rights for profit, rather than focusing on their charters of sharing information and educating. In many ways, the concepts of intellectual property and education come into significant conflict with each other. And that brings us to a story submitted by Joe Reda, concerning a nameless economics professor at an unknown university supposedly forcing students to destroy all their notes at the end of the semester, officially to avoid having such notes fall into the hands of future students.

To be honest, I find the story so incredible that it’s difficult to believe it actually happened. If there’s anyone out there who can confirm that it actually happened, and provide details on the university and professor, that would be helpful (assuming there are multiple students in the class, and the professor has done this more than once, there should be at least someone else who can corroborate the story). However, if it actually did happen, there are numerous problems with it. First, and most importantly, it’s unlikely the strategy would actually work. What about students who took notes in an electronic form (increasingly common these days) and had backup copies elsewhere? There’s simply no way the professor could actually destroy all the notes. Second, it’s difficult to see how the professor has any claim, whatsoever, to the notes unless she was discussing specific handouts over which she owned the copyright or, perhaps, verbatim copying — but even then, you’d have to think that such notes wouldn’t be under the complete control of the professor such that she could demand their destruction. Honestly, if the story is true, you’d simply have to question the quality of such a professor who seems to have confused the main purpose of her job: educating students vs. preventing cheating. It’s almost like the entertainment industry so focused on preventing piracy that they forgot about creating good content and entertaining people.

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Comments on “Can A Professor Force Students To Destroy All Their Notes?”

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TasMot says:

Those notes are mine

Having spent many years as a student, I made notes of things that were important to me. I still have most of my college notes and still do refer to them occasionally for subjects outside my profession. I don’t really care what the professor said, I never would have allowed the destruction of my notes. I paid enough money to be there that the record of my educational progress belongs to me.

Lonnie E. Holder says:

Ditto for me...

My notes are my own. If I thought that a professor or teacher might somehow force me to turn over all notes at the end of the semester, I would not bring them in.

On the other hand, if a teacher grades notes for credit and requires they be handed in at the final, there is little a student could do to prevent the teacher from destroying them. Just remember to make a copy of stuff you want to keep.

Aditya Savara says:

“Honestly, if the story is true, you’d simply have to question the quality of such a professor who seems to have confused the main purpose of her job: educating students vs. preventing cheating.”

I disagree, the main purpose of a professor’s job (in today’s world) is to further students towards a reputable degree. Maintaining the reputability of the degree entails protecting both the minimum education level AND the integrity of the degree. So there is no “vs.” those are both part of the main purpose of a professor’s job.

These days, it’s very rare that students go to college just to learn and not to earn a degree.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

These days, it’s very rare that students go to college just to learn and not to earn a degree.

The above comment smells heavily spiced. Do you see anything wrong with your statement?

Steve Jobs couldn’t afford to pay for classes, but still attended, as a “drop-in” as he called it. He learned, completed classwork, whilst not “formally” receiving a degree.

It’s no surprise that the “Reputable” University not only allows students to copy, or even watch Podcast/video of lectures, but some of the best also publish Courseware.

If the story is true, whatever school that is, it must be very mediocre.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“If the story is true, whatever school that is, it must be very mediocre.”

Uhm… no kidding. Have you known any high school in the past 10-15 years that did not promote mediocrity?

lets award our kids for waking up in the morning and showing up to school!!…

Sorry, I choose to praise my child when they do something worthy of praise. Like actually doing high school level work in high school. Unfortunately most high schools think it is OK to keep the kids at a 4th grade level. Who the hell knows why.

Anonymous Coward says:


What isn’t mentioned here is the fact that I (as a student, per se) am taking notes interpreting what is discussed in the classroom. It is my own words, my own interpretation, my paper (or other medium), my property. Very rarely does a student copy a lecture verbatim.

Also, as a teacher, this is lazy. Change up the classwork and test answers every so often! Students catch on to “the exact same test every year” no matter what you do to prevent cheating.

Jeremy says:

It happened to me...

My AP US History Teacher and AP Economics teacher both took our binders at the end of the school year. Ostensibly this was to prevent us from giving the notes to the next year’s students. This was before everyone had computers, so someone like me who typed up all their homework just saved the disks.

They gave them back at graduation if you wanted to go get it.
(this was 10+ years ago…)

Anonymous Coward says:

my notes are my property; Mr Teacher, do you think you have a compelling enough reason to violate my 4th Amendment rights (search and seizure) and then steal and destroy my property? Can you point to a contract that I signed that gives you permission to do this? Are you willing to stake your job, career, and reputation on this? Would you like to spend the next few semesters in court instead of in the classroom? Do you think the Dean will appreciate the negative publicity this will generate for the school?

all because you’re too lazy to use a different test next year?

interval says:

And the purpose of a teacher to assert some sort of IP rights over a student’s notes would be… to perhaps later write a book based on the subject of the class, and knock out the competition? That’s a stretch. Admittedly I’m a dimwit and probably missing some really obvious need for the teacher to assert those ‘rights’, but…

d0n0vAn says:

I call shenanigans.

1) My significant other is a professor. She never teaches the same class more than once on a rotation. In other words, she teaches different classes all the time. She teaches at a research university so she is always preparing new material. Her book is due out this year and the content has little to do with the classes she teaches. SHe is an expert in her field and it is simply is a tenure requirement. Also, I watch her prepare her classes. We talk about the content and how our thoughts of the content have changed since we last talked about it.

2) The American University experience is totally a client atmosphere. Colleges focus less on learning the arts and sciences and focus more on getting those kids in and out with a para-professional degree. Some public universities really are fast-food style. Serious. Parents of the fast-food kids fly their helicopter in when the student receives an A- instead of an A+ and demand to know why. The never consider the fact that the problem is little Johnnie.

tutor girl says:

Learning how you can

With the increasing amount of students attending online schools and those that have many more responsibilities than just school, no matter if a student is taking notes or copying notes, at least they are learning.

I work for an online tutoring company and intellectual property should be the least of the worries of instructors/colleges.

I don’t know how many people per day I have ask me if they can pay someone to do the work for them, write a paper for them, even give their log in and ask someone to take an online test for them.

We don’t do this or encourage this, but they still ask and then get upset when a tutor actually gives them advice and study material rather than their completed assignment.

A nursing student has once asked to have someone take an online math course for her! What is wrong with this picture?
A student doesn’t have time or motivation to write a paper on their own, but complains about plagiarism? What is the moral implication of this?

I worked hard to get through school. It scares me that I could be in the work force with people that paid for their work do be done for them, but the way I see it,they will ultimately fail because the true test is life and if they can’t hack it because they don’t have the skills, it will show!

I know there are websites now where students can post lecture notes for other students and even make money selling thier notes, this is probably wrong and I can see the prof’s compaining, but making a student toss his notes is wrong…I still have some of my college notes and I have referred to them on more than on occasion in the field as a refresher.

Joe Schibinowitz says:

Fork over notes

If the notes could be considered intellectual property then so can the content of the lecture. So when a student leaves college full of intellectual property owned by the college, whether absorbed or in written format, the college owns the right to the money that is made with that property. Know you do not have to pay for college up front, you just have to give them a percentage of everything you make for the rest of your life.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Fork over notes

you show a surprising amount of ignorance in your post, but I’ll just correct the most glaring problem.

Facts (such that any college lecture would be based on) can NOT be copyrighted, only the presentation of said facts. What this means is that while a student would be guilty of copyright infringement if he video taped or wrote them down word for word but also that if the student only wrote down select quotes or the facts the teacher said then his presentation of the facts fall under copyright.

in short, the notes belong to the student because he wrote them down.

Felicemente says:

Re: Re: Fork over notes

I’m sorry – he who throws about the label of “ignorant” immediately undermines anything he has to say.

As far as the intellectual property question goes, random Coward’s claim that the student has inherent rights to the notes generated while taking a college class IS WRONG.

I attended law school at the University of Missouri and received a cease and deist notice from the university’s attorney to remove the information that I had posted on my personal blog. This information posted was nothing more than description about what my experience was like taking specific professor’s classes, what the finals were like, and my suggestions for future students on where to focus their study time.

The notice received from counsel stated that the while the information presented in the class was not proprietary, the nature in which it was presented was exclusive to the school and, therefore, protected.

All of this was done under the guise of trying to maintain the integrity of their “adversarial education” process, but, IMHO, the true reason runs more along the lines of the legal system wanting to maintain it’s meal-ticket. But, then again, that’s a completely different (and massive) topic.

So, in answer to your question, this type of behavior out of teachers most assuredly happens.

Anonymous Coward says:

This place is funny, but sad. Sad because first a story gets “reported” and they article even states that it isn’t true (then why post it in the first place) and then gets 28 reply’s.

Second, because, ummmm, who the hell wants to keep their notes anyway? You must really be a wanker if you are really keeping your notes. I bet you turds wear earmuffs too.

Hold my pickle hold my lettuce says:

Re: Re:

“Second, because, ummmm, who the hell wants to keep their notes anyway? You must really be a wanker if you are really keeping your notes. I bet you turds wear earmuffs too.”

AC, you sound like real intelligent person. I bet you have done well in the fast food industry. Your choice seems to be paying off because McDs is doing much better in todays economy than many other businesses. My hat’s off to you Capt of supersize me.

mike allen says:

Re: Re:

I wonder which university you went to? but reading your post it is quite clear to a moron in a hurry you did not attend school above 2nd grade. leave the thinking to those who can, personally i recored all my lectures and still have them. Il have a big Mc and no drink thanks. BTW McDonald’s in the UK are to open an Academy minimum wage for all.

sf suave says:

My school claimed ownership of my work... and then they profited from it!

I know this is slightly off track, and a bit of a ramble, but opens up an interesting question about who acutally “owns” the results of your course work…

When I was at University, in the UK, I was given an assignment to design a LAN. The main aim was to design the LAN and produce a couple of real world quotes to meet and exceed the requirements.

At the end of the course I provided a design document with 3 quotes all for different spec LANs that I produced by researching the market, calling suppliers and agreeing prices.

Little did I know at the outset, the University had actually been commissioned by the regional fire service to design LANs for their fire stations which were all to be rebuilt/redesigned. The commission, as reported by the local press at the time, was worth £8000. Not reported in the press, however, was the fact that the University were so impressed with my submission that they didn’t even bother to re-write it before handing it off the the fire service, they didn’t even take my name off it!

Now, was I entitled to any of the money? My work, my money right? Err… No. In fact, when I spoke to the University about it they claimed that they owned it as I had ,quote “handed it over”. I was obviously not nieve enough to accpet this without question, so I spoke a solicotor (lawyer). The guy backed up the Universities claim that as I had freely handed this over I was not entitled to claim “payment” after the fact.

I’ve not persued this any further since but, when I’m reminded of it, it always grates a little…


Robert says:

I went through 2 colleges.

Some of the “bigger projects” we were only allow to come review in office, never allowed to take home.

1 project wasn’t even allowed to see graded version. We only were told the score.

I had 2-3 classes during my bachelors that required us keep all notes in a “workbook” any notepad or wahtever, but we had to “turn them in” at the end of the semester as they were worth 5% of final grade.
It was an easy way to do exactly what you were talking about.
I highly doubt they were ever looked at.

People did share old tests, projects, homework very often and the teachers and professors did re-use some assignments more often then youd realize.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

In law school the easiest way to pass the exams was to find as many student made outlines/notes as possible and study from those. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that; that’s what the professors told us to do. They knew that by relying solely on our own view of the class/subject, we’d miss important details. Only by broadening our view to those of other students, including those who took the class in the past, could we fully grasp the topic.

Ben (profile) says:

Re. sf suave

When you signed your university’s terms & conditions of registration, there’s a very high likelihood that you also signed over rights to any patentable inventions you come up with using their equipment, or on their premises. (and if you live in halls of residence, that includes those locations too).

Welcome to the adult world – the small print sucks.

Seamus McCauley (profile) says:

I hope the professor, if he exists, has excellent back-ups of his own notes then. My father works at a university and when one of his colleagues had his office burn to the ground, taking twenty years of accumulated notes and teaching materials with it, he was able to recover some of his work with an appeal to his former students to make him copies of any notes they’d kept. Harder to do if you’ve instructed the same students to destroy their copies.

Casey says:

Maybe less related, but still an interesting point on copywriting the classwork.

I had a Physics professor in college that wrote his own text book and, maybe obviously, used that textbook as his course book. Basically making both his primary income and a decent secondary income off his student.

This wasn’t the real thing I had a problem with though. The professor had printed the homework, labwork, and notes in the books and he would ONLY except the actual ripped out pages from the books for a grade on the homework and labwork. Basically forcing every student to destroy the $180 textbook throughout the semester. It could not be sold back after ripping pages out and every student was forced to buy new. I think that bordered on a racket considering he had atleast 4 classes of 80+ students each.

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