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Whose property is it anyway?

Considering copyright laws in the classroom

In 2011, McGill threatened students with disciplinary action for breaching copyright laws by posting course notes online via Wikinotes. At the end, students removed the notes and no disciplinary action was taken by the administration.

Since then, Bill C-11, also referred to as the Copyright Modernization Act, implemented new amendments to the Copyright Act. One such change was the inclusion of education under fair dealing – a set of users’ rights that permit the use of copyrighted material for certain purposes.

David Lametti, an associate professor in McGill’s Faculty of Law who specializes in the field of intellectual property and theory, says, “[As a result of C-11] there is now a stronger claim for uploading and trading notes with other students, provided that they do not infringe [on] the economic and moral rights [of the professor].” However, he also notes that “in the commercial realm, the fair dealing argument becomes weaker as copies are made for the purposes of gaining money.” With more companies entering the business of buying and selling course notes, often providing incentives for students to contribute material, the legality of uploading this material can lead to turbulence.

The main issue with uploading content lies in ownership. It is essentially all about proving who owns the intellectual property in question. The materials produced throughout a course belong to the professor or student who produced them. For example, in the case of course notes, if the notes are taken verbatim, the intellectual property rights would belong to the professor; however, if a student were to take non-verbatim notes or explain a concept in a unique way, the student would be the producer of original content and, as a result, would hold the copyrights and ownership.

Many professors are reluctant to return major assessments such as exams, fearing that students will post the questions online.

The copyright only protects the fixed expression of an idea whereas the idea itself is open for public use. As explained by André Costopoulos, Dean of Students, “If you post […] the work you did to solve the problem posed by the professor, that’s fine. If you post the professor’s solutions, then there is a problem because you need the permission of the professor.” He recommends checking with the instructor to avoid any potential copyright infringement.

A variety of factors other than intellectual property ownership are also involved in copyright laws. These include the intention of the uploader, where the content is made available, and who is able to access it. Each factor can influence the decision of a civil court in determining if any copyright infringement has been committed.

When the administration threatened disciplinary procedures against the students accused of copyright infringement in 2011, they did so using the Student Code of Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures. While the code does not specifically mention the uploading of course content, under the Rules of Conduct, in the section entitled “Relationship with Civil Law and Authority,” any offence under federal or provincial laws that occurs in the university context and is not specifically described in the Code is considered an offence if it “adversely affects the functioning of the University.” Additionally, under the Code, uploading your previous assignments or answers to quizzes or exams could potentially fall under plagiarism. The University can act independently of civil law when it comes to disciplining students for violating federal laws such as copyrights infringements. The civil law is concerned with investigating the violation of copyrights, while the University’s disciplinary procedures determine how the act has affected the functioning of the university.

“We are meant to be curators of knowledge, we are meant to develop knowledge, and I think we are moving increasingly toward sharing and open source models.”

David Lametti, Associate Professor in Faculty of Law

According to Costopoulos, “There is no offence against any article of the code for [students uploading their work]. In order to say that is an offence against the code, if [professors] want me to act on this under the code, they are saying that this material is the property of the University. That usually gets them to change their mind.” This perhaps signals a change in the University’s attitude – instead of intervening with threats of disciplinary procedures, the administration now seems to prefer communication between students and professors to resolve issues.

Many professors are reluctant to return major assessments such as exams, fearing that students will post the questions online. Costopoulos believes professors have a responsibility to design exams and assignments in a way that will prevent cheating and plagiarism – for example, changing the details of problems even when maintaining the same structure to test for certain skills or knowledge.

Mariam Hachem, Engineering Peer Tutorial Service U1 math tutor and U2 Chemical Engineering student, offers an alternative to uploading coursework. “[The] Chemical Engineering Student Society makes coursepacks of previous quizzes and assignments [for some courses] with the professors knowing about it,” Hachem told The Daily. She stresses the importance of professors being kept in the loop and asking for their permission before sharing any coursework on sites like Docuum, a message echoed by Andrea Gideon, EUS VP Academic.

Gideon recalls an incident where a professor got upset when a student put up notes they took in class for others to see. “The prof claimed them as his property and asked the student to take the website down. They came to an agreement where the student would send the prof his draft of notes and the prof edited them before making them available on MyCourses with his name on them,” described Gideon.

Everyone agreed that the best solution to avoiding potential copyright infringement suits or disciplinary procedures is to be ethical when using other people’s work and practicing good communication. Simply put: ask before posting.

When questioned about the role of copyright within academia, Lametti responded, “I think we are meant to be curators of knowledge, we are meant to develop knowledge, and I think we are moving increasingly towards sharing and open source models.”