04.05When professors attack …
Wired reports on a professor who’s suing one of those companies that repackages and sells student notes, claiming the notes themselves infringe on the professor’s copyrighted lectures. Note that the professor is not claiming that students who take notes are infringing–that, his lawyer very reasonably points out, is certainly fair use.
University of Florida professor Michael Moulton objects (well, and his e-textbook publisher, Faulkner Press, objects) to the fact that note-takers for the company called Einstein’s Notes would come to his classes and, when Professor Moulton would write down the bullet points of his lecture on a transparency projected to the class, the note-takers would write down those bullet points as well, and then work them into the notes that they advertised as a surefire way to get a good grade in Moulton’s class. That seems to be a valid claim, considering that it doesn’t sound like Prof. Moulton is switching things up a whole lot. (Oh, tenure. The right to give the same brilliant lecture for 10 or 15 years … it never gets old, right?)
Here are the two more interesting (or fury-inducing, depending on how you view it) elements of attorney James Sullivan’s arguments to Wired. First: Sullivan says that the act of writing the bullet points of the lecture onto the transparency during class creates a copyright on those bullet points–even if they are not the actual, literal substance of the lectures. The lectures have, apparently, been both published and copyrighted. Also, Sullivan claims that even if a student came to class and didn’t write down anything verbatim from either the lecture or the bullet points, then either sold or published those notes online, the notes would be considered derivative works and would be potentially infringing.
Sadly, the act of writing down the bullet points, according to the oddities of U.S. copyright law, probably does affix a copyright to them, and sadly, this case may indeed have some merit since the note-takers for Einstein’s Notes are indeed profiting from derivatives of Moulton’s work.
Obviously, Faulkner Press isn’t trying to end the practice of selling notes or study guides to students. They simply want to be the only ones to profit from selling Professor Moulton’s notes. It’s possible that the good professor himself might be a little offended at the degree to which students will go to both avoid class and also get a passing grade, which might have inspired him to jump on board with this lawsuit in the first place. But this is the type of irresponsible wielding of copyright law that creates even more outrageous precedent: Wired notes that, “[t]he suit could also have ramifications for more longstanding businesses such as Cliffs Notes, which summarize copyrighted novels.” If Cliffs Notes go just so that Faulkner Press and Moulton can keep their side revenues intact, what will happen to the very fabric of university education!?
Mostly, it’s just sad to see this type of ownership ethos extend into academia. Professors are proud and forced to “publish or die,” publishers are looking for ways to keep their revenue streams intact in the face of online study groups (which make note-sharing an even easier affair), not to mention textbook recycling or even pirating, and ultimately, materials that were created for the noble purpose of educating the young minds of America become stuck in a petty tug-of-war over who “owned” the thoughts in the first place. Some lesson.
(Thanks to zefyr for sending this one in.)