Who owns notes from professors’ lectures?

Today’s Gazette has a story in which I’m quoted about a new online service called Notesac (a rather unfortunate name).

While it is mostly a banal case of a) students sharing notes and b) someone skimming profits off something at universities that wasn’t previously fully monetized, the real story here isn’t reported.

The unfortunately-named “notesac” site claims ownership of the notes in a most problematic fashion:

All documents (including the organization and presentation of such material) included in this web site (the “Documents”) are the property of NoteSac and its licensors and may be protected by intellectual property laws including laws relating to copyrights, trade-marks, trade-names, internet domain names, and other similar rights.

The Documents many not be uploaded, sold or redistributed through any other mediums, specifically other websites, which are available to, or used by the public.

The Documents may only be used for non-commercial personal or educational purposes. Copyright and other intellectual property notices must be observed at all times. Exploitation, modification, and creation of derivatives of the Documents are prohibited.

The lectures are in the first instance the lecturers’ intellectual property, I don’t see how the company can claim exclusive property rights over their creation, distribution and sale, since their contributors may already be violating the IP terms of the courses they are attending.

3 replies on “Who owns notes from professors’ lectures?”

  1. I think you’ll find that in terms of Canada, the lecturers notes are different from the students notes, and the students notes are not considered to be simply derivative, but may generally considered transformative. However, the terms of that are usually determined less by the common law, but more by the explicit rules of the student and faculty handbooks, which frequently try to define the content and material of courses as belonging only to either the instructor or the institution, but having asked a fair number of people when this came up a few years ago, the general through that student notes may be transformative, and as such when thought of as a whole, have to be considered as such.

  2. I’m completely with you on this one, Jonathan, having been subject to something like this very recently myself. For me the question of copyright status is almost a no-brainer, as this goes back to the very foundations of intellectual property jurisprudence. One of the first questions that was decided over in England (Pope v. Curll, 1741) pertained to who owned the contents of a letter, freely sent: the writer or the receiver. The outcome was pretty decisive — the letter writer. The analogy to the archiving of notes online is quite strong, I believe. Unfortunately, in my case, the company in question has refused even to acknowledge my requests to move the copyrighted material.

    The one question I’m left with, though, has to do with, e.g., the Course in General Linguistics, a book attributed to Saussure but written by his students from his notes. It would be interesting to know more about the history of that particular publication.

    Thanks for posting about this important topic. I swear — these issues get deeper and deeper by the week.

  3. @Jeremy: even if the students’ notes are somehow transformative, I don’t see how the website can claim full, exclusive ownership of the material. The issue here isn’t students’ rights to create and circulate notes, it’s the injection of money and a third party with no other interest in learning than skimming money off it.

    @Ted: you should write about your experience with that company. As to Saussure, luckily for us it’s in the public domain. The Foucault lectures are another matter and they do raise that question, except that you can at least argue legitimate scholarly interest. Whatever the answer, I don’t think university presses are waiting with baited breath to publish student transcriptions of my lectures for COMS 210: Intro to Communication Studies.

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