This Class (c) 2008

I suppose if faculty deliberately choose to misunderstand their role and torment students, they’re free to do so. As Wired reports, another faculty member is claiming that notes students take in his class infringe his intellectual property rights. Michael Moulton, pictured right, and his publisher Faulkner Press (no link love for you!) are asserting what they suppose to be their right to control what students do with the information he teaches in his classes. While this all seems very confusing, the lawyer representing his publisher (a Mr. Sullivan) makes it quite clear:

But if a professor’s lectures are copyrighted, aren’t students already infringing just by taking the notes in the first place?

Yes, Sullivan answers, student notes do infringe, but they are protected infringement.

Ever wonder why students hate teachers? Try telling your students that their class notes infringe your copyright.

We may assume that Prof. Moulton’s / Faulkner Press’s understanding of fair use, or “protected infringement,” is restricted to educational circumstances. The use of student notes from his class for profit-making purposes is all that bothers them. And surely that’s appropriate, right?

Then, once students graduate and go on to employment, what should happen to these class notes whose infringement was once protected? When students take these infringing notes out of the educational setting and into the workplace with them for “review,” surely the protection those dastardly, infringing notes enjoyed in the dorm room finally disappears, doesn’t it? If a graduate is hired by a company, and course-related information makes it’s way into the corporation, that organization might financially benefit from the professor’s intellectual property – without the professor’s or publisher’s permission and without the professor or publisher receiving any compensation! Oh, the humanity! This growing crisis in the academy leads me to ask:

What can be done about the slow, leaking escape of faculty knowledge out of universities via graduating students?

In other words, how can we isolate and contain faculty intellectual property, so that enough students pass exams that our departments maintain their accreditations, but we guarantee that students leave with no more information or expertise than they entered with?

Oh, wait. THAT’S THE WHOLE FREAKING POINT OF THE UNIVERSITY.

The teaching act is a sharing act. I’ll say it again. The teaching act is a sharing act. To hold the sacred title of “faculty” means to be a person who dedicates his or her life to making sure that every student you come in contact with takes with them as much of your knowledge, skills, expertise, and positive attitudes as possible when they graduate. It means to work to facilitate and mediate student learning. It means to enculturate those students as deeply into your professional community and practice as possible. There is simply NO place for selfishness, for withholding, for secrecy, or especially for threats of legal action against students for taking, sharing, or even – gasp – selling – class notes. If it helps students learn what you’re tying to teach, why would you interfere???

The only answer can be that student learning is no longer your first priority. And that’s sad.

The distinctions will slowly become clearer and clearer. The “free market” of student registrations will declare open educators who truly teach and share of themselves with students to be the winners, while the intellectual misers will be left to sit alone in their ivory towers counting their publications, unable to understand why students no longer sign up for their classes (or attend the universities whose policies uphold these attitudes) and unable to understand that they don’t own the copyrights in their publications – the publishers do.

It’s unclear how much of this lawsuit is Moulton’s publisher, and how much of it is him. We expect this kind of behavior from publishers. Let’s hope that Moulton is just caught in the crossfire here. But if a person is concerned about protecting their intellectual property, teaching just isn’t the right profession for them. They need to find a new one.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • It gets a bit ironic when you look into his research, which is about how animals thrive or fail based on the community around them.

  • Looks like the accolites of the ivory tower strike again. Reminds me of when Marc Prensky said he believed that the notion of intellectual property was flawed and that it would not exist ten years from now. One can only hope. For me it is more like street cred. In the hacker communities you are know for what you give back to the community and credit is given where credit is due. I suppose this is why the creative commons model of sharing content resonates with me.

  • David, I think you and I should take a world tour, to bash academics in the head with frying pans until they understand this point.

    Sadly, I have intimate experience with this professor and publisher: http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/2008/04/textbook-publisher-sues-note-taking.html

  • I’m counting on Darwinian theory to take care of such evolutionary dead ends. All we will have soon are curious fossils.

  • James Sullivan

    Mr. Wiley,

    If you had read the Complaint I filed (at the link you declined to provide) on behalf of my client, or if you had simply telephoned me, I would like to think that your opinion would be different.

    Professor Moulton and Faulkner Press hold that students (who pay tuition) should have the lecture notes free of charge.

    Faulkner Press has also announced that any monies which may awarded in this lawsuit will be donated to a university organization.

    I’m not familiar with your views on IP in general, but if you hold that a professor’s lecture is in the public domain, such that any third party may make as much money on that IP as the market will yield, then we disagree.

    James Sullivan

  • The point is, our wages are paid by the taxpayers. We are the BBC. Our content has already been paid for.
    Of course, American education is far less supported by the state, and as fees rise in the UK you wonder how long before something similar happens here.
    In the meantime, you can have my lecture content for free at onlinejournalismblog.com among other places.

  • To me the question lies in the definition of “directly derived”: while I am all for protecting the real intellectual property of individuals who hope to profit from their own work, assuming that instructor lectures ARE protected intellectual property, there is _still_ a disturbance in the force emanating from this lawsuit. The bug question for me is, “Are student notes an infringement of that IP?” Unless they are directly copied, then student-determined usage of student-compiled notes strikes me as acceptable under “Fair Use” guidelines, similar to the referencing, citing, or summarizing any other academic work in the creation of a new academic work.

    That question aside, there is, as others have rightfully pointed out, the philosophical question of What Teaching Is For, and How Teaching Works Best. On that question I tend to agree with Dr. Wiley and similarly-minded folks who embrace openness in education. “Teaching is sharing”, Dr. Wiley stated; that’s a philosophy I hope to practice and share.

  • Here’s a nice write-up on the legal issues:

    http://mipr.umn.edu/archive/v4n2/townsend.pdf

  • John Steinbeck once said:
    “It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, aquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”

  • Andy Lane

    Perhaps Mr Moulton (and Mr Sullivan) could kindly tell us whether what he knows and what he lectures on is at all based on the work of others, perhaps even his own teachers. In other words is he infringing someone else’s IP? Knowledge and ideas are free, wisdom has to be earned and sometimes paid for. Keep up the good work David, we are with you all the way.

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