Too Much Free Time

by Mike Masnick


Filed Under:
copyright, homework, sjsu



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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  1. identicon
    Rob, 28 Aug 2009 @ 5:39am

    Odd

    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.

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