Can You Copyright Homework Titles?

from the that-may-be-difficult dept

Earlier this summer, we wrote about how SJSU computer science student (and Techdirt reader), Kyle Brady, had won a fight with one of his professors, over Kyle’s decision to post the code he had written for the class online. He had only done so after the assignments were due (so as not to reveal the answers to other students), and did so to show off his coding skills and to help him get a job. Yet, the professor threatened him, claiming he was “cheating” and that he would get a failing grade. After taking the issue up the administrative chain, Brady was told that he had done nothing wrong and had not violated any academic policy.

At the end of the post, I noted that I was a bit surprised that a separate issue hadn’t come up. The entire discussion had been about school policy, and not about copyright. Yet, many schools these days now try to claim the copyright on code written by students. Perhaps I spoke too soon.

Kyle alerts us that, with the new school year beginning, the same professor has added a new copyright policy to his assignments. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like he’s claiming copyright over the code, but over the assignments themselves. You can see the policy for yourself, where it states:

The homework assignments in this class are copyrighted by Dr. Beeson, including the names of the assignments, and the names of all the required classes and methods, all the examples that are posted with the assignment, and the problem descriptions and programming hints that are posted. Your solutions are your own, but if you want to post them publicly, you must change the names of the classes and methods, and you cannot post the problem descriptions. This should enable you to show your work to a prospective employer, and possibly allow me to re-use the assignments without future students being able to Google your solutions.

Now, to give Dr. Beeson credit, he appears to be trying to come up with a reasonable compromise here, allowing Kyle to do the sorts of things he wanted to do, without making it so that he would have to come up with new assignments every semester. So, I can respect that. But, I’m not sure that he’s got a legal right for all of that. It’s not entirely clear if the names of the assignments are enough “creative expression” to warrant a copyright. Ditto for the names of required classes and methods. Even if they were, I would imagine any student would have a pretty strong fair use argument in reposting them.

I think it’s fair for Dr. Beeson to request students not post info that makes it so easy for future students to Google the answers from former students (though, let’s face it, students will always find ways to get similar info anyway), but claiming it’s due to copyright seems like a stretch.

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Comments on “Can You Copyright Homework Titles?”

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Richard says:

For once I have some sympathy with the ultra-copyrighters – was thinking of doing something similar myself. The real problem is not the one you mention, students making stuff available to the next generation – they often do that privately.

The new threat is students posting their assignments on sites like getacoder and putting them out to tender.

Unfortunately academic misconduct is getting more and more difficult to prove and we have no sanction against those outside the institution who assist with it.

Copyright law provides a powerful (if blunt) implement that can be used to deter these activities – we were thinking of going for statutory damages (might be able to retire then…)

Evan says:

Re: Re:

“The new threat is students posting their assignments on sites like getacoder and putting them out to tender.”

So what if they do that? It is their work after all.

“Unfortunately academic misconduct is getting more and more difficult to prove and we have no sanction against those outside the institution who assist with it.”

Let me get this: do you call a student (potentially) getting some money out of work they have done by themselves academic misconduct? Why not ask for their first-born too? Don’t even get me started on the “no sanction against those outside the institution who assist with it” part, which I find nauseating. This is one type of behavior that I notice to be recurring all the time when it comes to education institutions (schools/colleges/universities etc.): many, if not most, of them treat their students as slaves that have to be taught their place, instead of as current, and potentially future, partners. The result is that you get a large mass of teachers/professors being a really bitter bunch which are almost never able to work as anything else than glorified prison guards… and I find this state of affairs really sad and troubling.

Richard says:

Re: Re: Re:

You badly misunderstand me. I didn’t mean students using their own code to earn money on the side – all power to them if they do that – there’s even a credit in our project making scheme for it.

NO I meant students putting our assignment specifications onto getacoder and paying someone else to do the work for them. I hope you’ll agree that’s rather a different propostion.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

When I was in college, we had a student who got all of her test answers from a previous student. While she aced the tests, we all knew she knew nothing. How did we know this? The teacher (who also knew what she was doing) created an in class project for everyone to work on. We all knew what was coming and backed off and let her work on it. For three days she worked on it and could not get it to work (I got it to work in about 10 seconds). After that, the teacher changed the test and she promptly failed. We didn’t see her again after that.

The moral of the story, a teacher who actively participates in class will know when their students don’t deserve to pass.

Richard says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“The moral of the story, a teacher who actively participates in class will know when their students don’t deserve to pass.”
Yes – we do know that – the problem is to get that information into the “official system” in a robust way that the student can’t challenge through an appeal.

Our current approach is to run a programming test under exam conditions (we call it the driving test). That gives us really reliable information about what students are capable of.
We find that the good students are proud of their abilities and don’t want to cheat.

Recently I issued a warning to one of my groups about the ways we could detect if they were cheating. One of the best students then said “you’re telling us how to cheat without getting caught” I said “I’m telling students like you how to cheat without getting caught – but I know you wouldn’t do it anyway. The ones that would cheat don’t understand what I’m saying well enough to work that out – so to them it just sounds like a warning”

TheStupidOne says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Not all kids could do that … I couldn’t even have afforded a couple hundred. But there are lots of rich kids in schools who have no real business being there and a few hundred to an offshore coder is substantial … not to mention it should take a professional much less time to complete the work than a student

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t understand what the big deal is over sharing homework, since it’s for the students’ benefit.

I thought the point of homework is for the student to learn what’s being taught through application.

To test if the students actually learned the information, you use ‘tests’. If the student passes the test (without cheating obviously), then I don’t suppose it really matter much if the student did the homework, farmed it out, or didn’t do it at all.

brent (profile) says:

Re: Re:

while i completely understand and agree with you on this richard, i just wanted to play devils advocate. So say a student does use getacoder. Now hasn’t he paid for that work? so wouldn’t that work be his. as in he owns it. So if he owns it then he might as well turn it in. Don’t some professors take the work of their understudies as their own?

Anon student (user link) says:

Re: Re:

I just want to comment from a fly on the wall viewpoint of all this. While it’s a good thing that teachers should be forced to change their assignments and not just recycle the same thing year over year, I have had some classes with this particular student and it’s hard to be on his side. This kid is the definition of douchebag. First of all, he looks like he just came off the set of lord of the rings as a really short elf. Second, he literally TRIES to be a pain in the ass in class. He will stop class with stupid comments about what he thinks the teacher should be talking about. This is the type of self-righteous attitude that compels a person to register a domain that’s their first and last name and post their crappy homework solutions on it. Did I say crappy? They’re terrible. A sudoku problem that should be no longer than 20 lines took this fool over 150 lines and a multitude of variables. If any prospective employer looks at that code, they will run far away from this guy, as they should anyway because he really needs to get a haircut. And just shut up and take notes in class.

William Doane says:

Re: incentive

I’m generally an “information wants to be free” kind of person, but in this case, I think that it’s not enough that it’s his job any more than “it’s enough” for J.K. Rowling or Stephen King that it’s their job as writers.

The (any good) professor puts a considerable amount of effort into creating original, engaging exercises that captures the intended learning outcomes for the assignment… that’s a non-trivial task; one that requires time for which many professors (of the adjunct/part-time variety) are not compensated.

Assignments, lectures, etc. are the professor’s performance, as much as a musical performance or a play. That being said, I think Michael is probably dead on that the title of the assignment, per se, is not sufficient for protection, but that the work as a whole (the assignment, plus the suggested method names, plus sample data) is.

Not to draw the wrath of the Dr. Beeson, but… I’m fairly certain that if a student wanted to write a critique of the assignment, then excerpts from the assignment could be used under fair use doctrine. (I am not a lawyer)

Richard says:

Re: Re: incentive

The other problem is that in some technical specialties there really aren’t that many different things that you can come up with that aren’t either too hard, too susceptible to cheating by pulling standard solutions off the net or too contrived. The first assignment may not be that difficult to invent – but producing a variant can be much more difficult.

A student’s assignment based on some “starting code” supplied by the professor (as I believe to be the case here) is clearly a derivative work – so the professor is within his rights in putting any conditions he likes on it.

Now this is a misuse of a bad law but it is to a reasonable purpose (preventing students from cheating).

Personally I would rather do without copyright law – but seeing as it exists I ‘m not above using it in such a way.

btw – not sure if this is also true in the US but in the UK there is an almost complete exemption from copyright law in the setting answering and marking of examination questions – I’m not sure if this extends to assignments but it might be ironic that the porfessor could ignore copyright when setting his questions and then impose it on his students…

Matthew says:

Re: incentive

My mother and sister have both taught at the college level, so I have some experience with this. Creating homework problems IS part of their job as a teacher/professor. It’s better for the teacher and the students, though, if the teacher can create homework problems once (the first time they teach the class), with minimal maintenance of the homework set thereafter. That leaves the teacher with more time for developing the curriculum in ways that will interactively benefit the students, like updating lecture plans, extending office hours, and crafting SI sessions as needed.

moore850 (profile) says:

you cannot copyright a title

To address the article heading, you cannot copyright “titles” of any kind. A phrase or word can be trademarked and used as a title that way for protection, but there does not exist any protection over “titles”. Can you copyright homework assignments? Of course, anything uniquely produced by a person has an automatic copyright on it. One could argue that teachers should condone abuse of copyrights of their works, but that doesn’t mean the teachers have to condone it. Until copyright is wiped out, it is the law.

Paul Carr (user link) says:

Copyright in music

I am currently conducting research into the impact of heavy copyright legislation on the legacy of Frank Zappa. I have written a post on my blog about the Zappa Family Trusts recent habit of interpreting statutory rights as ‘grand’ rights and also a draft version of a paper that is being published later this year. I would very much appreciate any insight anyone can give – regarding the grand rights issue in particular. The url is


Rob says:


One could argue that SJSU is a government entity and the professor is working in the capacity of the university to which he nor the university could claim copyright. Same applies to the federal government which cannot copyright works since it is funded by public dollars. I would have to make a case stating that the professor may not claim copyright since the work is sponsored by a government entity for which is he is and employee or contractor for. This would make the homework assignments owner SJSU and not the professor and SJSU would have a hard time claiming copyright.

Robert Accettura (user link) says:

Pig Latin? ROT13?

What happens if the students standardize on how they rename things? Perhaps Pig Latin or ROT13?

Is it a derivative work? Protected by law? Still not allowed?

Seems you only need to get one step beyond copyright to be safe, and you can standardize how that step is made.

Could also give professors an alias, perhaps based on their ID in the schools system (normally visible during registration periods).

Seems like there are still ways.

IMHO a professor working for a state college shouldn’t be able to personally claim copyright while being paid largely by tax dollars. Even private, it should be the copyright of the school, not the individual.

Mark says:

Re: Isn't this a disincentive to create new works

Yes, he’d have the “incentive” to do so, but would that take away from other creative activities that a professor does? Rather than “laziness” being the cause of wanting to reuse assignments, perhaps it’s not wanting to waste time re-creating a perfectly good set of assignments when the time to do so would take away from other activities. Those activities are more likely to constitute progress than re-working assignments from year to year.

Scote (profile) says:

Is the professor and employee? Are his homework assignments work for hire for the university? Can he even legally claim copyright?

(Well, that and he clearly doesn’t understand copyright since he tries to claim copyright over **titles**, which are not copyrightable. His attempts to use copyright as a censorship tool are somewhat ignorant and reprehensible.)

Rosedale (profile) says:

I understand the professor

I understand where the professor is coming from I really do, but really it comes down to what the student wants to get out of the degree. I am taking classes right now, but even in my BS and MA degrees there were times that I could google some answers it is especially true in computer science (the classes that I am taking now). Two things, first if I do nothing but copy code straight from google search than it stands to reason that the professor would realize it if he searched google. I think you can tell when someone just up and copies code without attempting to change anything. So the professor could just deal with each situation on its own. Personally I would feel dirty copying code from the internet. I have occasionally used the internet as a resource, but in general I always try to do my own work for my own logic. But honestly in today’s society google and searching is a big part of the industry. Why reinvent the wheel if someone else has done it for you. I think a better programmer is one who can come up with it himself, but if someone gets by copying code from the internet it will likely catch up with them in the end. When I was in music it was much the same way. If I copied a paper online it may have gotten me a grade, but it would have caught up with me eventually.

So I guess what I am saying is I see this as a non-issue. For real cheating it will probably be pretty obvious and for everything else, even what is missed, it will likely catch up with the student anyway. Some day he’ll be presented with something where no google search will work and if he unprepared let him suffer.

I have also learned a lot by looking at other people’s code. There was an extra credit assignment in my last class where the teacher specifically said you could look at sample code online, but that your code must include certain things. That assignment I ended up using someone else’s code, but revamped it to the way I typically do things. That processes actually taught me a lot.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Wrong Method of Teaching.

Let’s state the bidding. The course in question seems to be a sophomore-level Algorithms and Data Structures course, meaning stuff like linked lists, stacks, and that kind of thing. It is not an advanced course. The course will be at about the same cognitive level as tenth-grade high school geometry, and indeed, the syllabus for the old AB level Princeton AP exam in Computer Science, which has since been discontinued, seemed to cover just about every reasonable topic I could think of. At some point, a reform of mathematics teaching in the schools is going to involve incorporating Computer Science in the required curriculum on much the same basis as geometry. The cumulative requirements for the AP Calculus exam should incorporate Computer Science up to the Algorithms and Data Structures level, just as the exam presently incorporates a certain knowledge of geometry.

Graded homework is not a terribly good idea in teaching this kind of material, at least to ordinary students. You want to develop the ability to solve a problem within fifteen minutes of encountering it– it’s like teaching a foreign language. There’s just no way you can fairly administer that as homework. Some people live further from campus than others, some have after-school jobs, etc. That means, practically speaking, that the assignment has to be done in class, or possibly in a teaching lab. When I was in engineering school, back in the early 1980’s, a common practice in the mature applied-physics types of engineering subjects, eg. Strengths of Materials, was that people would reserve the last five minutes of a class period for a mini-quiz, consisting of one problem, mimeographed on a half-sheet of paper, with space on the page to work out the solution. In computer programming, it was not feasible to set actual programming assignments on very short notice like that, because computers were still scarce and expensive. This was just before computers became ubiquitous. However, it didn’t much matter because those of us studying computer programming in one form or another were all computer-drunk, and no external discipline was required. What happened was that we young men waited around in the computer center at night, hanging out and talking shop, until, some time after midnight, one of the limited number of keypunches or computer terminals became available, and then we nipped in and used it. The computer center was a windowless basement, not very well lighted. No one would have been overly surprised if a werewolf or a vampire had walked in. The one regular Computer Science sequence I took, as distinct from engineering programming courses, was an Algorithms and Data Structures course which was labeled PL/I. At the time, PL/I was the mainframe equivalent of C, and one did the same kinds of things in it, the kind of programming which involved memory allocation and pointers. As a student from a branch of mechanical engineering, I had to pull strings and bend rules to get into this course. At any rate, we were writing comparatively large quantities of code with pencils on paper during quizzes and hourly exams, because it simply was not economically feasible to assign weekly assignments which involved using the computer. The actual programming assignments, necessary for us to learn debugging, were firmly tied to big concepts, such as B-trees and semaphores.

The problem is that Computer Science has become something for people who are not drunk on computers, but whose career counselors told them to take Computer Science. Kids nowadays have grown up with computers from their earliest infancy. If you are drunk on computers, you are apt to learn this kind of thing at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Looking at Kyle Brady’s website descriptions of his coursework, I notice that a lot of the problems seem to be exercises in getting the student to rapidly translate things from one formal language to another formal language, in order to build basic proficiency. If you are teaching a foreign language, it is understood that you have to work out a system of exemptions, so that people who already speak idiomatic French do not wind up in Freshman French. Apart from the AP exams, every French department has an internal placement exam, which may not be as statistically validated as the Princeton product, but which does not cost fifty or a hundred dollars per test either. However, the necessary structure of placement exams does not seem to exist for sophomore-level Computer Science courses.

The teaching of foreign languages is of course primarily oral, so cribbing isn’t too much of an issue. If foreign language teachers graded primarily on typed translation homework assignments, Babelfish would be a very formidable cribsheet, but of course they don’t grade that way. They conjugate sentences around the room. Programming courses at the level of Algorithms and Data Structures, for those who need to take them, probably need to be taught in a classroom which has rows of tables, with built-in computers at each seat, where the teacher can set a problem, cause it to appear on everyone’s screen, and walk around looking over students’ shoulders and observing where they are having problems.

Scote (profile) says:

“by Anonymous Coward

Think of it as work for hire – the students are performing work for hire in many senses. They write it, they submit it, and the school then “owns” it. The payment is in a grade (and maybe a diploma).

It is actually very common.”

No, I won’t think of it as work for hire. The analogy fails miserably given that the student is not an employee–the only category that qualifies as work for hire–and it is the student paying the university, not the other way around. A grade is not a payment in any way, shape or form, nor is a diploma.

Jason (profile) says:

This one might hold up...

…IF he words it so that submission of the work constitutes an agreement that includes relinquishing rigths, AND IF it is clarified that the “copyright” on the title is only a copyright on the title in so much as it is connected to the associated published code/derivatives.

Basically the idea is that the copyright can’t simply be on the title alone, but the title is naturally included insomuch as it is connected to the rest of the work.

I’m impressed with this guy’s approach and willingness to reason and I think it demonstrates practical good sense, the likes of which isn’t normally featured on this blog. It’s not going to stop cheating outright, but the preventative measure seems appropriate to the situation.

Anonymous Coward says:

“This one might hold up…
by Jason
…IF he words it so that submission of the work constitutes an agreement that includes relinquishing rigths, AND IF it is clarified that the “copyright” on the title is only a copyright on the title in so much as it is connected to the associated published code/derivative”

To make such a requirement would exceed his authority to set university policy as a mere employee or contractor.

Jens says:

Does any of this really matter?

There will always be a way for students to “cheat” on their homework, if you even want to call it that. But there must be some sort of test in place to prove that students can do certain things on their own, so the students who “cheat” without understanding what they are turning in are only setting themselves up for failure.

There were numerous times when I have copied homework or simply found shortcuts/solutions online to solve problems. But if I can do that and still produce my own work and/or succeed on an exam without outside help, I don’t really see a problem here.

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