‘My economics teacher is forcing us to give up all of our work for the semester. Every page of notes and paper must be turned over to her to be destroyed to prevent future students from copying it. My binder was in my backpack, and she went into my backpack to take it. Is that legal?’ Besides the issue with private property invasion, which was the trigger of that post, there is much more important question: Can a teacher ask a student not to retain knowledge? How does IP law relate to teaching and sharing knowledge? Whose property are those notes?”from Slashdot

I came across this question today and wanted to comment.  I won’t turn this into a full-blown legal analysis of copyright protection of class lecture notes, but there are some ideas I felt were important enough to mention.  Leaving aside the issue of the teacher going into the backpack, I’ll focus on the IP question because it just seems to keep popping up.  It’s a thorny issue that really shouldn’t be all that thorny.

First, keep in mind that facts and ideas are not protected by copyright.  Only the “expression” of facts or ideas can be protected.  When a student writes down notes from a lecture, he is primarily concerned with documenting the important facts and ideas of the lesson.  Any elements of the teacher’s expression that are copied into the notes are typically ancillary and of little real value to the student. Going further, it should be recognized that the facts and ideas that a teacher lectures on are primarily repackaged information that the teacher has derived from other sources.  A teacher seeking to enforce copyright ownership of this information is farcical at best.

I understand that classroom dynamics have been changing rapidly over the last few decades, with the introduction of photocopies, digital recorders, email, etc.  The “expression” of ideas, as opposed to the ideas themselves, can increasingly be captured verbatim.  Hence the growing and potentially misguided belief that copyright law needs to step in to protect a teacher’s expression of the facts. To the contrary, teachers need to get innovative and figure out how to embrace these technologies to further their one real goal…educating students.

Last year, a University of Florida professor brought a suit filled with interesting copyright claims against a commercial note-taking service.  To summarize, this service was paying students to take class notes and then sellingthose notes online as study aids.  I haven’t been able to locate an update to see how that case was resolved…it may have settled.  If someone has more information on the outcome, please leave a comment.  Regardless, the situation described in the question above does not involve a commercial note-taking service, just a tuition-paying, education-seeking economics student.  Therefore, many of the commercial elements that made the Florida professor’s copyright claims somewhat palatable do not exist here.

I find it remarkable that any teacher would ask a student to hand in all of their class resources at the end of a semester.  After all, there are actually students who go to university to gain knowledge they can use for the rest of their life…not just for the length of one semester and to be forgotten upon handing in the final exam.  Class materials, including quizzes, tests and lecture notes, are often important resources later in a student’s professional life.  Is the threat of future students copying the notes really so severe that it outweighs the potential value to the note-taking student?