Who Owns Students’ Class Notes? California State University System Slaps NoteUtopia.com Entrepreneur with Cease and Desist Letter
Late last month the California State University Chancellor’s Office sent Ryan Stevens a cease and desist letter. The letter arrived just a few weeks after the launch of NoteUtopia.com. The site, which was first conceived of during an entrepreneurship class Stevens was enrolled in at California State University (CSU) Sacramento, provides a forum for students to buy and sell notes and other study materials for classes. It’s also intended to function as an online community – a place to network, discuss courses and rate professors.
The September 21 cease and desist letter penned by University Counsel Gale Baker indicated that the site violates a section of California’s state education code which prohibits students from selling or disseminating “academic presentations,” including class notes, for commercial purposes. The letter directed Stevens to stop facilitating the sale of class notes in California, to inform students about the law through a notice on the website, and to stop promoting the site to CSU students. CSU also sent an e-mail to all its students warning them that disciplinary penalties, up to and including expulsion, could be inflicted upon any student found to be responsible for posting or purchasing class notes on the NoteUtopia site.
Stevens, now a CSU Sacramento alumnus, was especially taken aback by the cease and desist letter because he was granted permits and paid fees to pass out marketing materials to students at three CSU schools – Sacramento, East Bay, and Chico. Although Stevens complied with CSU counsel’s requests, he has contacted an attorney and Internet law experts in regards to fighting the statute, which he sees as a violation of students’ rights.
The obscure law referenced in CSU’s cease and desist letter was co-sponsored by the California Faculty Association (CFA) in 2000 in response to professors’ concerns about websites that started posting student notes without faculty permission. Professors felt it was inequitable to have others profit from their efforts in putting together course materials. In addition, the quality of the notes being posted online was also a concern to the CFA, according to the Association’s former president (who is also a CSU professor).
Despite the California statute, the question of what students are able to do with material taken from class lectures is still unsettled. According to Eric Goldman, the director of the High-Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University Law School, the issue “comes up with some regularity,” and is at the center of an academic and legal debate on intellectual property rights involving how classroom content is shared among students. James D. Nguyen, a Beverly Hills attorney and former chairman of the intellectual property section of the State Bar of California, told the Los Angeles Times that when students summarize a lecture, they create a new work that they own under federal copyright law.
It could be argued that the federal copyright law preempts the California Education Code provision preventing the dissemination of class notes for commercial purposes, since the notes technically qualify as new works of authorship. But, as Goldman told The Sacramento Bee, if NoteUtopia intends to challenge California’s statute, the legal battle could be so costly it would “dwarf the business.” Stevens remains hopeful that some group, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, will take up this issue and help him fight the statute.