Does anyone own what universities teach?

Harvard professor Steven Pinker (left) has agreed to have notes from his lectures posted on Finalsclub's site. His colleague, Greg Mankiw, has refused. (Rebecca Goldstein, Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg) Harvard professor Steven Pinker (left) has agreed to have notes from his lectures posted on Finalsclub's site. His colleague, Greg Mankiw, has refused.
By Drake Bennett
December 13, 2009

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Plenty of Harvard graduates have traded on the fame and prestige of their alma mater, but few have done so the way Andrew Magliozzi has. The year he graduated, 2005, he started a tutoring company located steps from Harvard Yard, with a name, Veritas, that is the motto of his storied alma mater.

Then, two years ago, Magliozzi started up a side project called The site bills itself as “the premier Web portal for interactive education,” allowing Harvard students to join online study groups and read annotated versions of the Great Books. But its most notable characteristic is that it pays Harvard students to post their lecture notes online.

The website’s name was borrowed from the school’s Final Clubs - insular all-male social clubs reputed to keep old lecture notes on file to help their less diligent members cram for exams. And just like the Final Clubs’ files, the site serves as a crutch for students who haven’t bothered to attend class or take their own notes.

Magliozzi, however, insists that there’s a higher purpose. He is taking the substance of Harvard courses, information previously sequestered within the ivory tower, and offering it free to anyone with an Internet connection.

“I’m a big believer that educational resources should be free, or as free as possible, and in a sense I would like to do it not only at Harvard but at every top institution in the world,” he says.

Finalsclub is not the first website to offer elite university course notes, for free, to a wider audience - other universities, most prominently MIT, have set up so-called open courseware sites of their own, and the largest dwarf Finalsclub’s offerings. Nor is the site the first to publish student lecture notes: A mini-industry of lecture note vendors has long existed around the campuses of large state universities, and it has migrated online in recent years.

But in combining the two - by relying on students, rather than professors, for material and then posting it for free - Finalsclub, along with a few larger sites like GradeGuru and StudyBlue, raise issues of their own. Because the site does not charge, the material Finalsclub posts is widely available, and, unlike with open courseware programs like MIT’s, Harvard has little say in the process.

As a result, thanks to technology, one of the core functions of a university - distributing information through its professors - is no longer entirely in its control. It’s a potentially unsettling development for universities and professors, and it has found its way into court, as professors take on commercial note services and grapple with how much to limit the recording and even filming of their lectures. And as it grows easier to publish online and as more and more people gain ready access to the Web, the issue seems likely to only grow.

“It’s very hard, if you have students sitting in the classroom, to control what they’re going to do with what you tell them,” says Harry Lewis, a computer science professor and former Harvard dean. And “it’s very hard to keep control of material that finds its way onto the Web.”

The emergence of sites like Finalsclub is part of a larger incursion of the outside world into the university classroom: Students today can anonymously post videos of lectures to Youtube or report the details of a small seminar discussion on chat rooms that anyone can read. Universities, at least in some sense, are content providers, and the content that they provide - the lectures and course materials - is created for a sharply limited audience paying a lot of money. Record labels, newspapers, movie studios, and other content providers have been seismically shaken by the Web, and now universities are getting a glimpse of its disruptive potential.

For universities, the fact that the raw material of an education is, increasingly, easily available means they may have to rethink how they pitch themselves to applicants, perhaps concentrating more on their “value-added” features - their facilities, the opportunities for collaboration with faculty and students, the social scene they provide, or the fact that, for the time being at least, paying tuition and showing up on campus still gets one a diploma, while teaching oneself online does not.

Like many online start-ups, Finalsclub is in something of a holding pattern. Magliozzi sees little prospect of outside funding in the current economic climate, and there have been few new lecture notes posted in recent months. Harvard itself has taken no action against the site, but some of the professors whose lectures Magliozzi has wanted to post notes on have refused.

But the debate over who gets to set the terms by which classroom information spreads is well underway: A lawsuit by a University of Florida professor against a for-profit note company is going forward, and academics around the country have begun to examine how much can, and should, be done to control the posting of notes, videos, recordings, and the like.

“It is fair to say that a number of these issues aren’t exactly new, but the accessibility of the Web makes us conscious of them in a way that we weren’t before,” says Corynne McSherry, author of the 2001 book “Who Owns Academic Work?” and a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The question of people taking notes in lectures and reselling them is old, but now if you make them available online, the reach is so much broader that people get concerned in a different way.”

The basic legal question of whether a professor or university has any claim over the notes a student takes in a lecture is, it turns out, not a simple one to answer. According to copyright scholars, it depends on how the lecture was given and what the notes look like. Copyright only protects works of authorship that are fixed in a “tangible medium of expression” - at the very least there need to be notes that the lecture was read from, or a Powerpoint presentation. And the closer the student notes are to an exact transcript of the lecture, the more likely they are to be infringing the professor’s copyright.

The few times courts have weighed in have produced contradictory decisions: A 1969 lawsuit in California in which a UCLA professor sued a notes service found that the professor did indeed have the intellectual property rights to his lecture, but the University of Florida lost a 1996 suit against a similar company.

And while the basic issues are not new, the amplifying scope of the Internet gives them a new sharpness. Jim Sullivan is the attorney for a University of Florida biology professor named Michael Moulton who is suing the same notes provider that the university unsuccessfully sued in 1996.

“There’s a whole new raft of these companies out there,” Sullivan says. “It basically amounts to an online clearinghouse for stolen intellectual property.”

Still, part of the reason that there haven’t been more lawsuits around the intellectual property of lectures is that professors and universities see their mission as fundamentally different from that of a music label or movie studio.

“Harvard and MIT and Stanford and Princeton, we’re not Decca records. Our job in life is to provide enlightenment to the world,” says Lewis, an outspoken critic of the way content providers have used copyright law online. “We have to make a living doing it and all the professors have to be paid for their labors, but the notion that universities would inherit the oppressive picture of the way intellectual property is treated by the music industry is really a fundamentally warped view of what the ultimate purpose of universities are.”

Finalsclub has so far avoided legal trouble by being a nonprofit, by not charging students for notes, and, most importantly, by making sure to ask professors for permission to post lecture notes. Most, says Magliozzi, have been fine with it, including some of the biggest names at Harvard, like the political philosopher Michael Sandel and the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker.

For his part, Pinker says he was excited about the interactive promise of the site’s online study groups but agnostic about the class notes aspect. “There’s nothing that I would say in class that I wouldn’t say in any other public forum, so I kind of had nothing to hide,” says Pinker.

Several professors, including the English professor and writer Louis Menand and the economist Greg Mankiw, have refused. Mankiw says he didn’t want to make it easier for students to cut class. “Listening to lectures and taking your own notes is part of the educational process,” he wrote in an e-mail. Other professors expressed reservations about the accuracy of the notes and the fact that students were paid to take them.

Lurking in the background, McSherry argues, is also the issue of intellectual control. Academics today are increasingly itinerant - tenure is harder to come by, and even tenured scholars are more likely to switch institutions than in the past. And protecting intellectual assets like lectures - both from the university and from students - takes on a heightened importance. Part of what the university hires a professor for is his lectures, material that has often been honed over years of delivery, feedback, editing, and research.

The value of a college education has never been entirely about the content of the classes. People go to college to make connections with ambitious peers and eminent professors, for the social life, for the facilities and, of course, for the credential. The exclusivity of an elite education is a great part of its value, and the fact that anyone can click through a Harvard biology class online is unlikely to change that.

What it may do, however, is subtly change the mission of such schools. Champions of online learning see in the rise of open courseware sites like MIT’s what they call the “unbundling” of higher education. With the actual class content widely available at no cost, and with some programs looking into ways to make such programs more individualized to particular students, what happens in the actual physical classroom may become less about ingesting information and more about interaction and putting that information to use.

Magliozzi has such ambitions for his still small site. He envisions not only a far more exhaustive catalog of course notes, but a deep and broad interactivity, so that students can collaborate on notes and create documents far more comprehensive than anything any individual could do, participate in moderated discussions with far-flung peers, and ask questions through the site to professors at distant institutions.

“Basically, in a nutshell, I’d like to be a meta-membrane that sits on top of all colleges and unifies them, a meta-academic institution,” he says.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail