California collegians may be getting a lesson on the limits of sharing.
Students at California state universities are expressing frustration following news that the university system sent a cease-and-desist letter to a new Web site that lets pupils sell their class notes--in violation of California law, the chancellor's office says.
On NoteUtopia, students from about 100 colleges and universities around the country can buy, sell, or simply share their original class notes and reports, as well as handouts, exams released by the professor, and completed study guides. Students, who can join the 2-month-old site for free, can also collaborate with peers on homework assignments and directly communicate with professors who opt in to the service.
But last month, California State University's Chancellor's Office sent a letter telling 22-year-old NoteUtopia founder and president Ryan Stevens to "immediately cease and desist from selling class notes in California" in accordance with section 66450 (PDF) of the state's education code, which prohibits "any business or person from selling or otherwise distributing or publishing class notes for a commercial purpose."
There is, though, some uncertainty as to whether that section of the code is at odds with the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.
Nonetheless, some students who received e-mail notification of the conflict from CSU earlier this month say they're concerned about what their use of the site might mean, and worried that the service--one of many examples of the online goings-on so familiar to--might be taken away.
"I want to cancel my account right away," a student named Melissa M. wrote to NoteUtopia in a message forwarded to CNET. "I was unaware that membership to communities like yours is against my university's code."
Wrote another student, "Does this mean that your Web site will be shut down for good? If so, I'll be sad to see it go, as it was a great venture idea and would have been a great help to many students." And another: "Please do what is necessary to allow this service to become legal."
In years past, collegiate controversies over online materials has tended to center on plagiarism and the, in which the infraction is probably much more clear-cut.
In addition to demanding that Stevens stop facilitating the sale of class notes in California, the cease-and desist letter asks that he immediately stop in-person on-campus marketing for his site, which takes 40 percent of every transaction (students set their own prices when selling materials). The letter also demands that he include a statement in a "prominent location" on his site informing the state's students that selling notes is illegal.
Stevens, who graduated from Sacramento State University earlier this year and runs his business from San Francisco, pointed CNET toward an addition to NoteUtopia's terms-of-use page warning California students that failure to comply with the state's education code could lead to the termination of their NoteUtopia.com account, "as well as any other applicable penalties enforced by the state of California."
Mike Uhlenkamp, director of media relations for CSU, told CNET that the cease-and-desist letter emphasizes the distribution of class notes facilitated by NoteUtopia. He added that although students who sell notes on the site are in violation of the law, it will be up to individual campuses to take action.
Stevens--who says he looked into the legalities of his site "to an extent" before launching it--notes that the e-mail to CSU students "didn't say that NoteUtopia is illegal--it only said that any student caught [selling notes] would face expulsion." He says that the e-mail failed to mention that students can still upload notes to the Web site without selling them, and that the "threatening e-mail put the company in a bad light. That's our main frustration."
Services such as NoteUtopia function without hurdles in other states, according to Stevens. In addition, he said, "there were actually a lot of students who sent positive e-mails about the service."
Stevens has now demanded in writing that CSU amend its message to students.
According to Lois Schwartz, a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who specializes in California education law, the NoteUtopia tangle merges questions of ethics (will students able to purchase notes gain an unfair advantage?) with universities' internal policies and sometimes confusing legal issues.
"One of the reasons that the law exists is because there's an intellectual-property interest involved here," she told CNET. "The professor's exams, lectures, etc., are his property, but the notes are the students' property. So you have a conflict of interest there. You get into many claims on who has rights to the material."
Schwartz reinforced Stevens' claim that California education code could conflict with the California constitution and students' First Amendment rights.
"I think [NoteUtopia] can attack that kind of regulation on its face as being an infringement of its free-speech rights, of course, because [students] are expressing information. What I don't know is how the fact that they're selling the information changes the free-speech aspect."
Despite NoteUtopia's current battle, Schwartz pointed out that students post class notes online in other social-networking communities, even if they're not for sale.
Stevens, for his part, has turned to the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to see if those organizations will advocate on behalf of California students' right to use NoteUtopia's services without penalty. He has yet to hear back from the groups.