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
    Andrew D. Todd, 28 Aug 2009 @ 10:41am

    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.

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