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February 22, 2010
Volume 88, Number 8
p. 41

Professors Cry Foul Over Website

Questions about copyright infringement nag at academic social-networking site course hero

Bethany Halford

ILLEGAL UPLOADS In the digital age, copyright infringement is just a few keystrokes away.
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When it's crunch time for exams, students will turn just about anywhere to gain an edge. To sneak a peek at a previous year's exam, for example, students used to have to rely upon upperclassmen pals or their fraternity's or sorority's "test files," which hold exams from years past. Now, students of the digital age are hoping the edge they seek could be just a click away, thanks to websites that offer access to course materials.

Although several schools and universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offer free online access to lecture notes, homework assignments, and lab reports, it's an academic social-networking website called Course Hero that's got some professors crying "copyright infringement."

Launched in January 2008, Course Hero offers students access to study materials such as PowerPoint slides from lectures, course syllabi, and old exams from about 3,500 colleges and universities. Students can see the site's more than 6 million documents for a fee—$39.95 for a single month's membership or $6.95 per month for an annual membership. Or they can pay their way with uploads: 40 uploaded documents will get you a free month on Course Hero; 400 uploads will take care of a student's membership for a year.

According to Andrew T. Grauer, the site's founder and chief executive officer, Course Hero works like the online video site YouTube. All of the materials on Course Hero have been contributed by the site's 450,000 student members. And therein lies the problem. Although the site states that users should upload documents only with the permission of the copyright holders, many of the professors who created those files are unaware that their material is being sold on the site.

"Anything that a professor creates for his class—lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations—is copyrighted," says Eric S. Slater, manager of copyright permissions and licensing at the American Chemical Society. "Students might think they're doing a service by uploading to Course Hero, but it almost seems to me that they are aiding and abetting Course Hero in copyright infringement."

Nick Thomas, a chemistry professor at Alabama's Auburn University, Montgomery, had never even heard of Course Hero until his associate dean mentioned it in an e-mail to faculty. Upon visiting the site, the chemist was outraged to find an entire "NThomas" section in the area of Course Hero devoted to his university.

The documents there appear to have been lifted from Thomas' own website, www.getnickt.com, where he posts notes and study materials for the courses he teaches, along with articles he's written for the Journal of Chemical Education. What really bothers Thomas is that Course Hero is charging for access to his materials. "I just can't believe students would pay for that stuff," he says. "My students aren't going to pay some third party to get stuff that I'm going to give them for free."

He's not alone. C&EN contacted several professors whose course materials were available on Course Hero. None had heard of the site, and all were angry to learn that Course Hero is charging for access to documents from their courses.

When Thomas requested that Course Hero take his documents down from the site, he was asked to complete a written notice specifying that he was the copyright holder and which documents were online; he also had to agree to several other legal stipulations. Because he is the author of the documents, the task seemed onerous to Thomas.

"We strictly follow the guidelines as presented in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act," Grauer says. So, like YouTube, Course Hero will take down any documents if the copyright holder demonstrates they are posted in violation.

But "it takes a lot of effort to sufficiently pressure a site like that to take down copyrighted material," says Harry R. Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard University and coauthor of "Blown to Bits," a book about social and political issues arising from the digital explosion that is the Internet. If a copyright holder wants materials taken down, "what they need to do is issue a takedown notice, which is a nuisance," he says.

With so much course material out there on the Web, it's hard to completely thwart this type of copyright infringement, Lewis says. But he does have some advice: "If professors don't want their stuff uploaded elsewhere, they should probably start putting some fine print to that effect" on their documents and websites.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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