Tonight I wrote a bunch of notes on hypothes.is for one of the resources for LiDA103, an article in Wired by Ryan Singel about a lawsuit by a professor claiming that students’ notes were an infringement of copyright. (Lawsuit Claim: Students’ Lecture Notes Infringe on Professor’s Copyright, Singel, (2008). Wired.)
The article reports the claims of Michael Moulton, of the University of Florida, against a local company that collated and published review and revision materials for one of his courses that were acquired from his students. The company resold these materials, presumably to Moulton’s students. The case is illustrative of the complexity of propriety claims relating to “derivative works”.
Most of my comments on hypothes.is weren’t about this though. They were about Moulton’s teaching practice and the type of learning experience students might expect at a university where repetition of information from someone else’s lecture notes might be a pathway to academic success.
I experimented with something like this once, as an undergraduate. It was a lecture class in a large lecture theater with more than 100 students. Twice a week for 50 minutes we sat and listened to someone talk. It was tedious. So I agreed with a friend to attend once a week, and he would attend once a week, and we would share notes. I could not understand his notes and he could not understand mine, so the method did not work very much better than just skipping half of the classes. I’ve never been a note taker anyway.
The remarkable thing about the case is the notion that by taking notes in class, students might infringe on copyright. I suppose this is complicated by what students do with the notes. The article also mentions a service called Einstein Notes, a kind of crowd sourced thing on the Internet. Students sell their lecture notes to this company, which repackages them and re-sells them to other students, which is similar to the business model of the Florida firm that Moulton was suing.
Well, I wasn’t much inspired by the legal arguments about who owns what and why, and this was the whole point of putting the article on LiDA103. What I took away from the discussion of this is that a lot of people have opinions about what the law means, however, the only opinions that really matter here are those of the courts. Law is a very interesting field but it is counter intuitive in many ways. The operative principle is that people do have limited propriety rights over their labor and over their ideas, and that these rights are largely a function of context and sometimes contract. Whether this is right, or just, or fair is another matter. The law strives toward these things but often misses the mark.
The article interested me more for the view it presented of Moulton’s teaching practice. I was a little unfair here and made a lot of assumptions about Moulton as a teacher. I don’t know what he was teaching and it wasn’t revealed in the article. So, the article was an opportunity for me to rant about the quality of teaching and the invisibility of students in large lectures, and the failure of higher education critically to evaluate practices that orient students toward empty certification based on seat time, rote learning and retention – at least until exam day.
Moulton is a teacher and anyone working in education is underpaid. I sympathize with his complaint but feel that attacking students is the wrong way to go about defending his work.