Officials at California State University and University of California have recently instituted new policies that affect the ownership and sharing of notes taken in the classroom by students.  These new policies have raised questions about whether students or their instructors actually own the copyrights to class notes.  While the sale of class notes is clearly prohibited in California by both university policy and the California Education Code, some argue that it is the students who possess the copyright in their notes and that the policies unconstitutionally restrict the students’ free speech.

Websites like Notehall, NoteUtopia, CollegeNoteShare, and Versity.com (now defunct) have allowed students to buy and sell their class notes online for years.

Student Reported for Selling Class Notes

According to reports, California State University recently sent a cease and desist to Notehall after at least one student was reported to student judicial affairs for selling notes on the website.  The cease and desist letter cites both the university’s policies and the California Education Code as prohibiting the selling, distributing or publishing class notes for a commercial purpose.  Following the letter, Notehall has blocked students from CSU and UC from registering with the website.

New Policy at UC Berkeley

In December, the University of California, Berkeley instituted a new policy (available here (pdf)) restricting the sale of course notes.  The policy, which went into effect last month, states that the instructor may have a copyright interest in the students’ class notes:

“class notes and recordings are based on the intellectual effort of the instructor, who has an interest in protecting this effort and ensuring the accuracy of any public representation of his/her work. When notes or other recording of instructors’ presentations are sold or shared, they may infringe on the copyrights of the instructors and may violate the campus prohibition on unauthorized commercial activity.”

While the policy does allow students enrolled in the same class to share their notes with others “currently enrolled” in the class, the instructor can specifically limit this sharing.  Further, the policy appears to prohibit the sharing of class notes from semester to semester.

The policy also emphasizes the prohibition on commercializing class notes set forth by Section 66450 of the California Education Code.  This section of the code states that no one, including an enrolled student, can:

“prepare, cause to be prepared, give, sell, transfer, or otherwise distribute or publish, for any commercial purpose, any contemporaneous recording of an academic presentation in a classroom or equivalent site of instruction by an instructor of record. The prohibition applies to a recording made in any medium, including but not necessarily limited to, handwritten or typewritten class notes.”

UC Berkeley Cease and Desist Templates

In addition to the new policy, UC Berkeley has also provided to instructors a set of cease and desist letter templates that can be downloaded, modified, and sent to students or third parties accused of selling class notes.  On the cease and desist website, the university more clearly sets forth its understanding of an instructor’s rights to a student’s class notes:

“As an instructor, you retain the copyrights to your class materials.  This right stems from Federal law and is dictated by the University of California Policy on the Ownership of Course Materials and UC Berkeley campus policy on Course Note-Taking and Materials. Unless you inform your students otherwise, students enrolled in a course may take notes and share them with other students enrolled in the class during the same semester.”

Notably, the cease and desist website does refer instructors to the Creative Commons if they are interested in instituting a less restrictive policy on class notes.

UC Berkeley Professor Questions With New Policy

According to Jason M. Schultz, an assistant clinical professor of law at UC Berkeley and director of the university’s Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic, this is an issue of federal copyright law and constitutional free speech, which trump the California Education Code and the university policies:

“Instructors have almost no intellectual property rights to what students write down in class, he said. Faculty members may have intellectual property in the books they write, articles they publish and even possibly in the lecture notes they write for themselves, but students own the copyright on their own notes, he said.”

(via Do Students Have Copyright to Their Own Notes?).

Do Instructors Have a Copyright Interest in Student Notes?

Whether the instructors and/or the students have any copyrights in class notes likely depends on the amount of original expression found in each student’s notes.  A student who is effectively transcribing the instructor’s lecture or presentation has contributed very little or no original expression or intellectual property to the transcription, and the instructor likely retains a copyright interest in these notes.

On the other hand, if the student is simply writing or typing original thoughts (such as observations, conclusions, questions, hypotheses, derivations, etc…), as he or she listens to the lecture, the student alone likely possesses a copyright interest in these notes.

In between the two is a continuum that includes, among others, the student that merely condenses or outlines the lecture, and the student that transcribes only portions of the lecture while adding the occasional original thought.

Whether either students or the note-sharing websites will challenge the university policies or the California Education Code remains to be seen.

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