News | Administration cracks down on student note-sharing sites

Course instructors advised to put copyright symbol on their materials

The emergence of a student-run note-sharing website on campus has provoked the administration to rein in possible copyright infringement of course materials.

An email sent by Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson advised all course instructors to display a copyright symbol on their course materials. The Daily recently obtained the email.

In the message, dated September 23, Mendelson writes, “recent cases of students posting the entire course content from WebCT has raised questions about the possibility of copyright infringement,” and that “persistent infringements will likely lead to disciplinary procedures under the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures.”

The students – who, according to Mendelson’s email, were “ignorant of the issue” – were notified that their posting was an infringement of copyright and told to remove the materials, which they subsequently did.

One specific website – wikinotes.ca – is mentioned in the email. Founded and run by McGill science undergraduates Clarence Leung and Santina Lin, along with a small group of other science students, Wikinotes states on its website that it “strives to provide free and open student-generated course content through a publicly-edited wiki.”

Most of the content on Wikinotes currently applies to large U0 and U1 science courses, with six arts courses documented on the site.

In an interview with The Daily, Mendelson said an instructor complained that some of his materials had ended up online.

“If an instructor creates notes and posts that on WebCT, it’s copyrighted material. It’s not permissible to take that and do what you want with it,” he said.

In an email to The Daily, the board of administrators for Wikinotes wrote that student-generated materials comprised most of the content available on the website, but that instructor-generated materials would be useful to post as well – provided students get permission from the creator of the work.

The members of the board added that the McGill administration had recently told Wikinotes to remove images uploaded from textbooks and links to lecture recordings. Both were removed, though the members of the board wrote that they did not consider links to lecture recordings a violation of copyright, as the recordings are already available on the McGill website. They added that similar content would not be permitted on the site in the future.

Mikkel Paulson, leader of the Pirate Party of Canada, wrote in an email to The Daily that his group “takes the position that all information is power, and must be shaped and channeled to empower the weak and protect them from exploitation by the strong.”

Paulson said the copyright issues with university note sharing were more cultural than legal and political.

“Professors have the ability to unilaterally license their course material under Creative Commons or other copyleft licenses, regardless of the administration’s opinions on the matter,” said Paulson.

“Using copyright as a club is particularly hypocritical for academics, given that our present academic culture was built through hundreds of years of free sharing of ideas and information,” he continued.

Chemistry Professor David N. Harpp, who helps run Courses Online, a website established by the McGill Office of Science and Society to freely distribute recorded lectures and presentations, said that he hadn’t paid much attention to Mendelson’s advice to display his copyrights. “I’m not putting any copyright on anything… I haven’t even really looked into it, but [Mendelson’s] probably right to look into it,” he said.

Harpp said he had no problem with students or others posting and using his materials online, but noted differing attitudes throughout the University.

“We’re all in a different environment, I’m not sure how I can emphasize to you how different they are. There may be a culture within a faculty or a department that whatever they put out there, you have to pay for it. My best guess is that my own colleagues in Chemistry would have a similar feeling to my own.”

In regard to enforcing copyrights online, Harpp said, “This is a giant quantum step from a textbook, and, even with a textbook, it would be difficult to do.”


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