California universities make new moves in fight on notes

California WatchFebruary 2, 2012 

California State University and University of California campuses are taking new steps to limit what students can do with their class notes: At least one CSU, Chico, student recently was reported to judicial affairs for selling notes to a website, and a newly updated UC Berkeley policy restricts how students share their notes with others.

The policies raise questions about whether instructors or students have copyrights to the notes students take in class. While the California Education Code prohibits students and others from selling class notes -- and many campuses have policies that also ban unauthorized note-selling -- critics say students, not instructors, own the copyright to their own notes.

Some university officials say faculty members have the right to protect their professional reputation -- they don't want inaccurate or low-quality notes to be attributed to them. But others say the policies are restricting students' free speech.

'Wrong message'

"Given the amount of money students are paying to go to school right now, to ... confront them with these policies and say, 'You don't even have the right to use your own notes any way you want,' seems to be the wrong message to be sending," said Jason M. Schultz, assistant clinical professor of law at UC Berkeley and director of the university's Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic.

The CSU and UC systems have made efforts to shut down private note-selling websites for some time. As early as 1999, the note-selling website Versity.com sparked officials' furor at UC Berkeley. In fall 2010, CSU sent a cease-and-desist order to NoteUtopia, which allows students to upload course notes, study guides and outlines to a website, then set a price and earn cash for their work.

More recently, UC and CSU have sent cease-and- desist letters to Notehall, a note-selling website owned by Santa Clara-based Chegg.

The letter from CSU to Chegg cited CSU's student policies and the California Education Code, both of which prohibit selling, distributing or publishing class notes for a commercial purpose.

Notehall's website indicates the company is no longer accepting notes from CSU or UC students. Users who try to upload notes for CSU or UC campuses see an error message.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Chegg said the company is fully compliant with California law and is "working to ensure that our services fall within what is acceptable from one state to the next."

Who owns copyright?

But Berkeley's Schultz questioned whether states can prevent students from selling their notes. 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.

"Copyright is a federal law, and generally when state laws conflict with federal laws, federal law wins," Schultz said. "Perhaps more important is there's a First Amendment issue as well. If I take notes in class and I want to share them, that's speech."

UC's legal office also sent a cease-and-desist letter to Notehall in November 2010, prompted at least in part by complaints at UC Davis about Notehall, said Jan Carmikle, senior intellectual property officer at UC Davis.

California Watch is a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. For more, visit http://californiawatch.org.

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