Friday, March 06, 2015

My Academic Materials Sold without Permission

I am in the habit of giving my students, via UBC's course management system, access to detailed information from my courses—in the courses in which I use slides, I let students download my slides, in the courses where I don't, I let them download the 3–4-page notes I type up for them corresponding to each lecture. I let them download sample problem sets and lists of possible essay questions, detailed notes describing common issues that came up in grading exams or essays, etc. One potential drawback I have seen mentioned to this kind of practice is that it disincentivizes students from coming to class, since there are other ways to get the material. I expect this is a drawback of this habit—although I try to keep the class and these materials tightly integrated to mitigate that somewhat, but I'm generally of the opinion that the pedagogical value of being able to look over the material multiple times at a student's own pace outweighs this disadvantage. Certainly my students always tell me that they greatly appreciate these resources.

Unfortunately, however, there is another disadvantage I've become aware of over the past couple of years. There are for-profit websites that encourage students to take materials like mine and upload them into a database, where they then charge other students a fee for allowing them to access these files. (I'm not totally clear on how the sites work, but I think students are paid in some way—perhaps with site credit?—to upload these materials.) One such cite, 'CourseHero', has published over a hundred of my files on their site over the past few years. This is an illegal practice; these documents are my intellectual property, uploaded and sold for profit without my consent. Every few months I go through and check to see whether it's time to send a new DMCA takedown notice. (I am sending another today.) They do remove the files when I demand them to, but new ones always come up. To protect my copyright, I am required to spend a significant amount of my own time hunting down illegally uploaded material.

Besides the simple fact that is illegal, there are several reasons I am upset by this practice.

(1) It attempts to profit from the work I am doing for my employer and my students. My students at UBC are paying good money for the work I do, and the expertise I bring to bear, in the classroom. Some of that work is literally being stolen and sold.

(2) It removes the material from its appropriate context. I give my students these materials at particular times, and in a particular progression, for particular reasons. If one of my current students buys last year's notes and reads ahead, the material may not be presented in a helpful way at this stage in the semester. Indeed, in some cases, like when I make new conventional choices for logical notation in my formal logic course, last year's material will actually be misleading for this year's students.

(3) It interferes with my ability to assess. While I write new essay questions and problem sets each semester, it is helpful to be able to re-use some questions, or to introduce questions of a certain kind in assessed contexts. If students are able to download answer keys for previous semesters' material, I am less able fairly to assess their comprehension, since they had an unfair advantage. (Of course, this imbalance is particularly problematic when the advantage is offered to those able to pay for this service.)

(4) It violates the privacy of myself and of my students. The material will often discuss particulars of what ideas have been raised in class, including ideas generated by students. It is prepared for a particular audience, and not for public consumption. What students discuss in my class does not thereby become public knowledge. It also represents my own thinking about topics I'm often not publishing about—in some cases, I'm writing out my own relatively undeveloped philosophical thoughts, and in some, I'm playing devil's advocate or merely exploring an idea. In this non-research context, I won't always signal as clearly which is which than I would in something I'm intending for a public audience. It should be up to me whether to make this kind of content available to the broader public.

ADDED October 17, 2016:

(5) It gives students with the resources to pay for illicit notes an unfair advantage over students who can't afford them.

So, three messages:

Students: It is important to understand that the materials provided to you by your instructors are not yours to do with as you please. At least at UBC, they remain the intellectual property of the instructor, and are protected by copyright law. I have been told that at some institutions, they are the property of the university. I'm not sure. But you should certainly not assume that you are within your legal rights to sell the material your instructor gives you to any third-party. It might even be possible to prosecute students who violate instructors' intellectual property rights in this way. If you're not sure whether you have an instructor's permission to share course material, you can always ask.

Instructors: if you feel as I do that you don't want such materials to be sold by corporate websites, unfortunately it looks like you have to look out for this material yourself. I found a lot of things by searching for my name at the 'CourseHero' website; I found some other things not attached to my name by looking for course numbers. To demand the removal of material, you can send an email based on the following template. (At CourseHero, the address is

*** Sent via Email - DMCA Notice of Copyright Infringement ***
Dear Sir/Madam,
I certify under penalty of perjury, that I am an agent authorized to act on behalf of the owner of the intellectual property rights and that the information contained in this notice is accurate.
I have a good faith belief that the page or material listed below is not authorized by law for use by the individual(s) associated with the identified page listed below or their agents and therefore infringes the copyright owner's rights.
This notice is sent pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the European Union's Directive on the Harmonisation of Certain Aspects of Copyright and Related Rights in the Information Society (2001/29/EC), and/or other laws and regulations relevant in European Union member states or other jurisdictions.
My contact information is as follows:
Name: [______]
Organization name: [______]
Email: [______]
Phone: [______]
Mailing address: [______]
My electronic signature follows:
Infringing page/material that I demand be disabled or removed in consideration of the above:

Rights Holder: [______]

Original Work:
[list of offendingURLs]
CourseHero: Fuck you.


  1. I will certainly send a message to Course Hero on your behalf.

    This is a terrible practice and I'm sorry this is happening to you.

  2. I guess you and Leiter are two peas in a pod---too bad you don't really believe in free expression!

    1. This is a rather ridiculous comment. Objection to unauthorized for-profit distribution of my course material is in no way inconsistent with free expression.

  3. Thanks for your blog post, I have just discovered some of my course material notes on CourseHero, and filed under a completely different institution. I was able to file my complaint with them online, so they may have updated their complaints procedure.

    1. We just saw this too. THANK YOU.

  4. Something needs to be. I just saw my materials too. I am going to seek legal advice on this. I believe the owners of this site need to be challenged in courts.

  5. This is too much. We need to challenge this site in courts.

  6. I'm furious! I just found all of my graduate studies work on disgusting Course Hero--and even worse, on a separate (almost worse note) my 14 year old son's classwork is splashed all over their site, too!

  7. Me too, they are making money off of use because better to ask forgiveness than permission. These fuckers!

  8. I'm glad others are taking them to task. It's not just that it's exam questions, but that it's a bunch of junk. They don't review anything; they're seemingly just a conduit for an endless stream of pdfs and docs. Useless to students! There are plenty of better ways to learn about a topic, many resources for instructors available.

  9. Can someone please PLEASE let me know if there is a way to start a class action ASAP against fraudulent Course Hero ? They steal documents, sell them and have no care of it.

  10. As a student, I am glad that Course Hero exists. I would never use someone else's work as my own, but sometimes the website is helpful to get an idea of how some professors want an assignment completed. I have had several professors who could not write a comprehensible prompt to save their soul and they were never available for questions outside of class. Let us not forget those who do not grade by the rubric, do not follow the syllabus, or change their minds last minute. Students get no help from the university with this emotional abuse. Therefore, it is helpful to see how the collective has interpreted these erratic digressions, so as to have a better idea of what the professor wants. Yes, some students are using Course Hero to plagiarize, but the vast majority are just like me. I am in debt and cannot afford to fail some insignificant course due to an instructor who cannot teach.

    I understand how some may see that Course Hero is committing copyright infringement, but what about the students' work that is involuntarily logged into SafeAssign and Turnitin? One could form the same argument for those paid services as well. If someone manages to get Course Hero taken down, the content will simply reappear somewhere more inconspicuous. I think the solution here is to eliminate the need for such services by demanding better behavior of everyone, faculty included.