Yale Student Creates Unblockable Replacement For Useful Course Catalog Site Yale Blocked; Yale Reconsiders Initial Block

from the boom-goes-the-dynamite dept

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.

Then, 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.

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Comments on “Yale Student Creates Unblockable Replacement For Useful Course Catalog Site Yale Blocked; Yale Reconsiders Initial Block”

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24 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Recognizing their mistake?

‘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.’

Yeah, they’re not admitting to going overboard at all, they’re still claiming to have been ‘looking out for the students’, they probably just got tired of wiping the egg off their faces as each of their excuses was shot down and shown to be groundless and/or ridiculous.

Androgynous Cowherd says:

Leapfrogs

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.

Well, the students have surpassed their teachers, so at least that much of the educational process is still working as it should be at Yale.

Kev says:

Re: Re:

Yup, that vote will be on the very next agenda. I imagine they’ll justify it as a “privacy” issue for the faculty and staff and probably make some sort of claim that the reviews are misleading because they don’t take into account some super secret data-set that students don’t have access to. Based on that, they’ll just take the whole thing offline.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Legitimate concerns missing from article

I’ll never understand what makes some people and organizations freak out when users of their systems make better versions.

The fear of someone hijacking the trust of users is simple and unfortunately justified. The approach of demanding that the full source code be turned over to the organization and compiled/distributed by the organization seems straightforward enough. However, licensing headaches and, more importantly, continuing support of the code make this approach untenable.

As such, the best approach is probably to firmly (with legal backing) request that a disclaimer be added to the alternative version of the site stating that it is not the official version (along with a link to the official version). In this way the organization can easily gain summary judgements if someone sues over malware or erroneous data distributed by the alternative version.

Clearly this was handled poorly by Yale, but simply ignoring the site’s existence could, unfortunately, result in legal action against the University. Even worse, given the right judge, that legal action would have a small but significant chance to succeed.

scotts13 (profile) says:

Been there, done that

Back in the 80’s, I worked at a computer retailer which used a rather awful terminal based point-of-sale system. Solely for my own convenience, I wrote a Macintosh-based front end for it. It not only looked much prettier, it let you do quotes, included leasing rates, auto selected and offered to add extended warranties, etc. After a while, other reps were asking for copies and eventually the whole office was using it.

When corporate found out, they first threatened to fire me (for “hacking”) then decided they owned the software (it had been developed on my own time) and standardized on it. They assigned me to maintain the code, in addition to my other duties, at no additional pay.

I refused (this did not go over well). They got some other schmo to husband it, which did not go over well either.

nasch (profile) says:

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.

Is anyone else reading this as “we’re going to figure out how to update our policies so that this new thing will be banned too”? “we will create an easy means for them to do so” does give me some hope that they’ve seen the light.

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