Who Owns Your Class Notes? Cal State Threatens Students Who Sell Their Notes

from the who-owns-your-mind dept

SongLifter points us to the news that the California State University system has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the site NoteUtopia, for enabling students to buy and sell various class notes (among other things). On top of that, it has sent emails to students at its universities, warning them that using a site like NoteUtopia can result in discipline — including expulsion. There is, in fact, a provision California State education code that prohibits preparing, selling, transferring, distributing or publishing notes or recordings of lectures for “any commercial purpose.”

Now, I’m sure some will defend this as either (1) a way to stop cheating or (2) because of the supposed, if ambiguously explained “evils” of “commercial use,” but it does seem a bit troubling to threaten the website itself for this, or to tell students that they cannot sell their own notes. The threat of “cheating,” via others’ notes has always seemed overblown to me. You still need to actually learn the material to pass the class, and if you can learn it better via the notes of others, more power to you. I would guess that it’s actually harder to do things that way since the very act of note taking is what helps many people learn in the first place. As for the commercial use issue, again, I’m sort of at a loss for why this matters? If there really is a market for notes, then what, exactly, is the problem?

In the end, I’m just left scratching my head in wondering why the university system should care about this at all, when in most cases, all this will do is provide another source of information for students who wish to learn something.

Filed Under: , , , ,
Companies: noteutopia

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Who Owns Your Class Notes? Cal State Threatens Students Who Sell Their Notes”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Rachel @ Last Res0rt (user link) says:

And yet, the school PAYS ME to take notes...

Okay, so follow this logic:

I’m a notetaker for Disability Services on campus, which means that for every class I take notes for (caveat: I have to be taking the exact same class as the student who needs the notes), I get paid $100 (plus an extra $25 for delivering typed notes) for the semester. $125 divvied by 30-45 classes worth of notes == not much, but still a slightly better take than NoteUtopia.

So, if it’s not just legal, but ENCOURAGED to take notes for profit through my school’s system, why would it become suddenly unacceptable for me to sell those notes to folks who are also willing to compensate me for my time taking notes?

Jesse Jenkins (profile) says:

Note taking

I’m thinking it’s more like “restraint of trade”. I’ve been away from my college for about 35 years, but I recall seeing where the university offered course notes that you could buy online a couple of years ago. I thought it to be a good idea, at the time, in that some take better notes than others. This seems more like they want a monopoly than a “higher motive”. Follow the money . . .

dnball (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Reading the California law is step one: http://goo.gl/kMRk . A detailed history of how the bill evolved that ultimately became the law in 2000 is here: http://www.ucdfa.org/NashIP.pdf

So, in California it’s unlawful to prepare, give, sell, or publish for a commercial purpose any contemporaneous recording of a classroom “academic presentation” IF the presentation is not “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

In short, if the instructor wings it and his lecture is not written down anywhere then students cannot give away or sell the notes they take of that lecture. The rationale is that the professor owns a “common law” copyright in the lecture material [common law because federal copyright law does not apply when a work is not “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”]

But if the instructor has written down the lecture [or some substantial part of it] then I think it probable that this California state law DOES NOT APPLY and, therefore, does not even speak to the question of whether students can lawfully give away or sell the notes they take. We have to look to federal copyright law.

The reason for the distinction is because federal copyright law applies to all creative works that exist in tangible form [in this case, written down]. State law can only apply to, and in this case protect, creative works that are unprotectable by copyright law [like lectures given on the fly].

How many professors lecture w/o writing their lectures down in some fashion? None. ALL professors work from at least their notes on the subject they’re discussing. Even the older ones who no longer bring their notes to class anymore. Which, to me, means that the California law will NEVER apply [being preempted by the federal copyright law].

If federal copyright law applies then as soon as the professor writes down the content of his lecture copyright AUTOMATICALLY attaches to that literary work — w/o any formalities [such as registering the copyright with the Copyright Office].

So … once a professor’s lecture is written down and then performed in class, the next issue is whether the students infringe that copyright by writing down their summaries of the professor’s lecture.

Copyleftists may not like the answer but I think that the answer as the law stands now is yes. Research “derivative works” and the test used to determine whether a subsequent work is a derivative of an original.

Once you conclude that the students’ notes are infringing derivative works the next issue is whether the students have some defense or justification for their infringement. The answer to that is, I think, also yes — specifically, by the custom in academia and by professor acquiescence the student has an implied license to summarize the professor’s lecture as it’s being performed.

But I think that license only authorizes the students to use their summaries for OWN personal use. Making copies is outside the license as is selling the original copy of their notes.

Pete Welter (profile) says:

Another possible reason a school might oppose selling notes would be to prop up the educational model of 200 people sitting in a lecture hall copying down what the person at the front is saying. It would be pretty embarrassing for universities to have lecture halls with just handfuls of students in attendance, so forcing all students to come take notes themselves is one way around that problem.

I’m not saying that all large lectures fit this model – just those for which the instructor adds little value.

bjgger says:

From the Teachers POV

The big question is what is contained in the “notes” – homework assignments? Exams? Copies of papers? If the students use these resources, are they truly mastering the material or just turning in some else’s homework?

I am a college professor and have taught graduate and undergrad courses for almost 30 years.

Early in my teaching career I would give the students open-book, open-notes exams, in part because I felt it emulate the real-world environment.

During one exam I saw a student rifiling through a stack of paper – “his” “notes”. “His” “notes” consisted of every exam I had given over the past 2 years at that school. Creating good exam questions are tough, and while none of my exams were the same, some of the questions were similar enough that I felt that these notes (at the time only available via the frat houses), gave this student an unfair advantage.

Rather than fight it, I simply redsigned my exams and changed by policy to closed-book, closed-notes. And without those “notes” the student failed the class (which, by the way, I take no joy in).

“Cheating” (and there are various way to define it) in school is getting out of hand, and in many ways it has been an uphill battle for teachers. And we can’t/won’t catch it all. But we need to try.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: From the Teachers POV

If these really are just notes, it’s hard for me to see how this would be “cheating.”

Notes don’t give students answers. They just give them focus on the subject at hand, and remind them of things they need to answer or study.

I could give away my philosophy notes to everyone, everywhere, and they still wouldn’t know philosophy. They would, however, have a pretty good starting point for learning which issues that philosophy tackles. And that’s not a bad thing, nor something any university should discourage.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: From the Teachers POV

I should also say that I’m one of the guys who disagrees with Mike about “commercial use.” But that doesn’t really apply here. Limitations on commercial use are there to make sure people don’t get exploited. The students themselves are the ones who would (possibly) get money from selling their notes, and you can’t exploit yourself.

You could try to say how the professor’s work is being exploited, but professors aren’t paid for their notes. They’re tenured, so they have nothing to lose, financially speaking.

This is not a case where commercial use exploits anyone, so it’s hard to see how it shouldn’t be allowed.

bjgger says:

Re: Re: From the Teachers POV

If you go to the NoteUtopia website, it states that “students can upload and download all of their class documents, including class notes, study guides, handouts, reports, quizzes and more”

Notes I don’t have to much of a problem with “class notes, study guides, handouts” – but it’s the “reports, quizzes and more” that have me concerned.

Edwinem says:

The same thing is happening right now in my school Georgia Tech. Some students in my history class put up their notes on one of these profit websites, and now some of the teachers are trying to hunt them down. In an email he also said that the supreme court ruled that a professor’s lecture is his intellectual property and selling notes without the professors authorization is illegal.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

> Some students in my history class put up their notes on one of these
> profit websites, and now some of the teachers are trying to hunt them
> down

All these laws and lawsuits will do is send these class notes businesses to overseas servers where US law doesn’t apply. There are several 3rd-world countries doing a bang-up business as data havens where they’ve set up their laws to shield people from process servers and civil lawsuits from other countries. Unless the US wants to start blocking access to entire countries (a censorship move that wouldn’t survive the first round of court challenges), there’s really nothing that can be done about it.

ajamsandwich (profile) says:

What a mess, and so stupid

So, the theory that summering notes and selling them is infringement, yet did the lecturer not learn summarise to create class notes that heshe works off from the lessons he had and his lecturer, so on and so forth. Everyone every day profits from the above infringements from skills that we acquire through life, school, books etc.

So what we are saying is that in essence restricting culture, and learning is ok, hold on is that what copyright …..

Cheating is one thing and I certainly do not agree with unfair advantages in learning for notes well that as fair as I’m concerned is a right. How can copyright infringement exist for learning? Pretty much defines nearly every dissention as infringement as they are all based in some form from reference material. You get the picture!

Snickers says:

The way it can still be

Back in 2000 I took a class with 300 people. We had an awesome teacher. Turns out a lot of us worked and had issues with scheduling. With the consent and joy of the teacher, and the help of several really good note takers, I started a simple Class Notes web page for everyone. Within a month the site had gotten 10,000 hits. No ads, just notes. Life was simple back then. Everyone learned more than they thought they could by sharing and caring. Then came the monetizers, what a shame.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you are talking about copyright or commercial use, you are missing the point of what the university is trying to do. What good does it do students to pay someone for the class notes. Not everything you gain out of college is in the tests, it is the process of learning how to learn.

I think it is funny that the majority of comments here focus on the technical legal issues instead of what this whole story is about.

Joe Blue Book says:

Re: Being a lazy bum is a personal decision

Not everything you gain out of college is in the tests, it is the process of learning how to learn.

I agree with that sentiment, but once someone decides on taking and paying for a university education, they should also be prepared take any responsibilities related to that. At a university, the days of coddling students and looking over their shoulders are over.

Once the teacher has made their effort to teach and share what they intended to share, it’s up to the student what to do with it. It’s the student who gets to choose if they make the best of it and progress and grow, or if they don’t.

It’s pretty plain to see why people are focusing on the legal issues. Because the story of lazy students looking for a way to skate by on their classes and not learn a thing is old hat, and more importantly, a personal choice. On the other hand, universities acting like they have a monopoly on sharing classroom knowledge for any reason, and at any level, even as trivial as class notes, is a concern.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What good does it do students to pay someone for the class notes. Not everything you gain out of college is in the tests, it is the process of learning how to learn

Hmmm not sure where I stand on this but just to play devils advocate:
Is reading and absorbing somneone elses notes not a valid learning technique? It’s essentially their own take on the important potions of the subject matter after all – how is this significantly different from a textbook on the subject?

Jason says:


Anybody care to interpret this para:

c)It does not constitute a violation of this chapter for a
business, agency, or person solely to provide access or connection to or from a facility, system, or network over which that business,agency, or person has no control, including related capabilities that are incidental to providing access or connection. This subdivision does not apply to a business or agency that is owned by, or to a business, agency, or person that is controlled by, or a conspirator with, a business, agency, or person actively involved in the creation, editing, or knowing distribution of a contemporaneous recording that violates this chapter

Terada (profile) says:

What a great shame to shut down an enterprising student by declaring his business illegal to use. Student notes are the student’s property. Unlike other sites that I have seen, this site doesn’t write papers for students or encourages them to cheat by giving out exams. Sharing notes is harmless and so are study groups and other study tools like flash cards. This article reminds of a poll I took this morning, http://my-take.com/poll/is-it-okay-to-sell-class-notes-online If someone told me I could have sold my old college notes, maybe I would have tried to take better notes in class. Ah, too late.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am mixed on this one, as much of what you actually learn in college you won’t use in your professional life anyway. That says something about the important stuff being learning to learn and not just buy notes.

I could see a school punishing (flunking?) a student for buying the notes, but I think its wrong to cut out the supply.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...