To own the truth

Who owns what professors teach? Can knowledge in the sense of knowing what the truth is about a particular subject really said to be someone's property?

Greg Mankiw links a fascinating discussion of the online sale and distribution of notes taken in class:

The basic legal question of whether a professor or university has any claim over the notes a student takes in a lecture is, it turns out, not a simple one to answer. According to copyright scholars, it depends on how the lecture was given and what the notes look like. Copyright only protects works of authorship that are fixed in a "tangible medium of expression" - at the very least there need to be notes that the lecture was read from, or a Powerpoint presentation. And the closer the student notes are to an exact transcript of the lecture, the more likely they are to be infringing the professor's copyright.
Damn! When I was in law school I used to write down as accurately as possible almost everything a professor said (because my experience taught me that exams tended to heavily favor what professors actually discussed in class). Little did I know that the more accurate my notes were, the more I was guilty of copyright infringement.

You can't be too careful! Not that any professor in those days would have cared about copious note-taking, but now that they can be easily uploaded to the Internet, it's a different -- and very commercial -- game, although the courts are divided:

The few times courts have weighed in have produced contradictory decisions: A 1969 lawsuit in California in which a UCLA professor sued a notes service found that the professor did indeed have the intellectual property rights to his lecture, but the University of Florida lost a 1996 suit against a similar company.

And while the basic issues are not new, the amplifying scope of the Internet gives them a new sharpness. Jim Sullivan is the attorney for a University of Florida biology professor named Michael Moulton who is suing the same notes provider that the university unsuccessfully sued in 1996.

"There's a whole new raft of these companies out there," Sullivan says. "It basically amounts to an online clearinghouse for stolen intellectual property."

I find it hard to see note-sharing as theft.

Harvard professors Stephen Pinker and Greg Mankiw have a different takes on the matter.

Pinker says he was excited about the interactive promise of the site's online study groups but agnostic about the class notes aspect. "There's nothing that I would say in class that I wouldn't say in any other public forum, so I kind of had nothing to hide," says Pinker.

Several professors, including the English professor and writer Louis Menand and the economist Greg Mankiw, have refused. Mankiw says he didn't want to make it easier for students to cut class. "Listening to lectures and taking your own notes is part of the educational process," he wrote in an e-mail. Other professors expressed reservations about the accuracy of the notes and the fact that students were paid to take them.

I see Mankiw's point about not making it easier to cut class, although that's a different issue than whether detailed verbatim notes constitute stolen intellectual property.

Notes Mankiw,

I am not at all confident that I am right about this one.
I don't know whether he's right or not, there's so much arrogance in the world of academia that I admire any professor who who is willing to admit he might be wrong.

posted by Eric on 12.20.09 at 12:45 PM


I talked with my son, '11 OSU Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, about his note-taking.

He says his profs post their notes on-line. He rarely takes notes in his classes, preferring to focus on the lecture, knowing that "the distraction" of taking notes is no longer an issue.

OregonGuy   ·  December 20, 2009 1:41 PM

What value do notes have unless combined with college credit, for which tuition has been paid?
if self-improvement is the goal, who is so cold?
These professors have too much free time. Fire them.

dr kill   ·  December 20, 2009 6:31 PM

At the small religious college where I teach, I often upload my own notes, AFTER class to force students to deal with the classroom presentation themselves before looking at my way of writing it up.

notaclue   ·  December 20, 2009 7:00 PM

I teach philosophy. Engineering might be different, but I'm not immediately thrilled by the prospect of someone actually selling notes from my classes, i.e. taking my work, offered in a private setting for paying students, for their profit. I imagine that part of the value of the notes is that they come with provenance—my name and credential attached. When I publish my own stuff, I try to be certain as I can be that I've nailed down all the loose ends. Lecture notes rarely meet that standard—I would likely be unhappy to have these quoted as my position on this or that issue. There are also certain kinds of discussions that I might conduct in a closed classroom that I might not if I thought that whatever I say would be headed straight for web publication. All in all, a bad idea.

HMI   ·  December 20, 2009 11:02 PM

Actually, it is pretty clear that the school owns the copyright: the lectures are work product that the school paid for.

As to taking notes, it focuses the students' attention and facilitates learning. Students who don't take detailed notes are day-dreaming and miss all the important stuff.

I took detailed notes like you. It was worth a letter grade on my GPA. I taught at the college/university level for 37 years. I never once could get students to take detailed or even any notes.

Bob Sykes   ·  December 21, 2009 6:36 AM

Frankly, if they can pass the test I could not care less if they showed up for class or not. I really ticked off one teacher in college because I never studied for his tests or took notes, but I regularly scored very well on his tests, and 100% on the final exam, giving me a 95 avg for the course. He listed that as a B on my transcript. I think he was insulted that I could easily grasp the subject at hand without much effort.

Robert   ·  December 21, 2009 2:45 PM

A side issue: as most academics live at the public trough, even in the ostensibly private universities and colleges, shouldn't their scholarship be freely accessible to all? It's not as though they live off their scanty royalties. Yet academic books and journals are so insanely expensive that only libraries usually buy them.

This issue is somewhat addressed by university libraries that issue cards to local residents, but it's very hit and miss. I would like to see universal access to academic databases.

After all, they're always telling the rest of us to give back to the community. They really shouldn't suddenly discover the blessings of liberty only when their own rice bowls develop cracks.

Brett   ·  December 22, 2009 8:03 AM

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