All entries for Wednesday 09 April 2008

April 09, 2008

Do students' lecture notes infringe academics' copyright?

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A fascinating article in Wired reports that Professor Michael Moulton at the University of Florida is suing a company which has repackaged and put on sale the notes which Professor Moulton’s students took at his lectures. The assertion is that the study packs are illegal because they’re a derivative work of Professor Moulton’s lectures, which are protected by copyright.

The obvious question that this raises is, Doesn’t that make all student notes taken during a lecture de facto illegal? The lawyers involved say that yes, they are, but they’re protected as fair use. It’s an interesting and subtle distinction, and it’s not hard to think of cases which fall in between the two examples; the reason that reselling the notes seems wrong is because it’s generating an income for someone based on the work of the academic concerned – we feel that the company doing the reselling is free-riding in some sense. But what if the notes were made freely available? What if the company wasn’t charging anything to let others download the repackaged materials? Where would our sympathies lie then? I suspect that I would still feel that the professor concerned would be entitled to some protection, but it’s less clear cut. The slope from one student sharing notes with another, to a student sharing notes with everyone else on the course, or everyone else at the university, or the whole world, to a company supporting that activity on a not-for-profit basis, to a company generating revenue from it, is a slippery one. Where’s the right place to draw the line?

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