Policy monitors posting of lecture notes online

Sam Kean

A policy condemning the publication of lecture notes online has been amended to protect students, but controversy still surrounds the University’s right to enforce such a policy in the first place.
Under the new rule, students cannot distribute lecture notes for commercial purposes without the express written consent of the instructor. Possible punishments range from warnings to expulsion.
The original policy was approved by a faculty committee last spring, but student groups pushed to alter the wording. They wanted to ensure only lecture notes — and not informal discussions or students’ interpretation of classes — are monitored. The new policy does not address students posting lectures on the Web for free with proper attribution.
The latest version was given final approval before Thanksgiving but won’t be implemented until spring semester.
The policy targets companies who purchase lecture notes from students and post them on the Internet for profit; it also forbids students from posting lecture notes on private sites that receive ad revenue.
An e-mail circulating last spring attempted to recruit University students for such services. This e-mail, as well as problems encountered by schools across the country, prompted the faculty committee to take action.
Astronomy professor Leonard Kuhi had firsthand experience with this situation.
A student in his Astronomy 1001 class last spring sold lecture notes from Kuhi’s class to StudentU.com. Kuhi said these notes did not reflect the class because they were incomplete.
But beyond accuracy, Kuhi said such an action is stealing, because lecture notes are the intellectual property of professors.
Faculty Consultative Committee chairman and University law professor Fred Morrison agreed.
Morrison said intellectual property often refers to patents and copyrights but can be extended to lecture notes because they represent products teachers have worked to produce. And because lectures belong to professors, students cannot benefit financially from them without permission.
Most people familiar with such cases agree exact transcripts of lecture notes are protected by intellectual property laws. However, opinions divide when considering students paraphrasing lecture notes, and then posting them on the Internet.
Morrison said such an action would violate the policy. But Chuck Samuelson of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union contests this interpretation of intellectual property.
The policy is “a solution in search of a problem,” he said, because, he “can’t see one way or the other where the University is harmed.”
Samuelson pointed out professors must piece together information to form their lecture notes, and students paraphrasing material are in many ways the same thing. Thus, it’s not clear who owns the product once it has been interpreted. He added the push to implement the policy is a result of the democratizing nature of the Internet.
University department of pharmaceutics head Ronald Seigal sided with Samuelson. He said trying to control what students do with information once they have digested it is “nonsense.”
The policy seems to discourage the free exchange of ideas, he added.
Morrison listed other reasons the University adopted the policy, including students substituting online notes for going to class and people outside the University using the information without paying for classes.
But Samuelson said these problems cannot be adequately addressed by the policy.
Despite concerns over student rights violations, the Student Senate and Minnesota Student Association support the policy.
Student Senate chair Percy Chavey said with the wording changes, students would not be held liable for sharing or discussing class notes. The policy seems like a good compromise, he added.
MSA president Matt Clark said he understands professors wanting to protect their intellectual property and is willing to give the University the benefit of the doubt for now. But he added he also wants to see how the policy is implemented.
Clark’s uncertainty probably describes the future of the policy. Many have expressed doubts about the University’s ability to enforce it. Morrison said cases will be addressed as they arise.
But Seigal said even if the University trademarks classes, he still does not feel it could win a court case using this policy.

Sam Kean encourages comments at [email protected]