UC, CSU curb use of note-sharing websites

The University of California and California State University have taken a position against note-sharing websites, creating more stringent education policies to protect information shared within lectures. Policies changed both system-wide and at individual campuses.

“The new, revised policy at UC Berkeley states that students can only share notes with other students concurrently enrolled in the class,” said UC Berkeley Assistant Clinical Professor of Law Jason Schultz.

The UC sent cease-and-desist letters to notehall.com on Nov. 10, 2010, a note-sharing website owned by the Santa Clara company Chegg, as well as coursehero.com on Jan. 10, 2011, appealing to the websites to stop encouraging students to post notes on their sites. They remained in negotiations for several months before the sites removed the content.

“The UC has longstanding policies against plagiarism,” says UC Media Relations Representative Dianne Klein in an e-mail. “Selling notes is also against policy.”

California Education Code §66450 prohibits businesses from commercially distributing a recording of an academic lecture without authorization, and Code §92000 makes it a misdemeanor to imply, directly or indirectly, the UC’s endorsement of any organization without its permission, stated the cease-and-desist letter to Notehall.

“What’s going on now is nothing new,” said Jan Carmikle, senior intellectual property officer for UC Davis, in an e-mail. “In fact, this is the third go-round with online commercial note-taking businesses since the late ’90s.”

“In both the previous [cases], the services folded when their business models proved not to be profitable, in part because universities inform the businesses of the various copyright and policy implications for students being enticed into providing the content which the business is making its money off of,” Carmikle said. “It’s kind of parasitic, when you think about it.”

Those in favor of strict crackdown on note-sharing claim that professors have rights to the intellectual property contained in student notes.

“Professors especially should be concerned, as it is their intellectual property — their lectures — that is being sold on the open market without their consent,” Klein said.

“The concerns of the UC and its researchers are that the quality of notes taken by an anonymous individual, who may or may not be a student, is outside the knowledge or control of the instructor, and are likely not to be an accurate reflection of the instructor,” Carmikle said.

Carmikle believes poor-quality notes aren’t educationally conducive, but moreover that these notes can misrepresent the research and ideas an instructor tries to convey.

“The instructor’s research program can be harmed, sometimes irrevocably,” she said. “This can cause instructors to hold back on what they would previously share.”

Critics of the policies say limiting student note-sharing can be considered a transgression against students’ right to free speech.

“These policies are unconstitutional and are never enforced. There is no intellectual property in student notes unless they are transcribed word for word,” Schultz said. “The first amendment protects both the students and the websites. Offenses have never been brought to trial. If they are, the campuses will waste a lot of money fighting an uphill battle only to lose.”

As for the potential harm done to research projects, Schultz believes professors should not be sharing confidential research with students in the first place.

“If the research is confidential, sharing it with students is a violation of ethics. Unless the students have signed nondisclosure agreements, they are sharing it at their own risk,” Schultz said.

Even though students no longer have access to notes through note-sharing websites, there are other ways to share notes online, such as Google Docs.

“My view is students are going to share notes either way; why force them to hide behind Google Documents?” said Schultz. “Part of what’s great about education is that when we learn something, we want to share it. That’s the dream of education, and we should be promoting that, not suppressing it.”

EINAT GILBOA can be reached city@theaggie.org.

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