L&S Statement Regarding Online Lecture Notes Services

This statement was developed in response to an emerging trend in which students were offered opportunities to sell lecture notes. This guidance was offered to help faculty who preferred to retain their intellectual property.

In response to concerns instructors raised about students’ recording and publishing notes from lectures they attend, the discussion below suggests actions instructors might pursue under current university and UW System policy. We would like to know more about this issue, and will share what we learn with Administrative Legal Services. If instructors choose to pursue any of these actions, we would like to hear about their experiences. Please contact Associate Dean Elaine Klein (elaine.klein(at)wisc.edu or 265-8484).

Recent years have seen a remarkable increase in entrepreneurial activities online and on campus -- and, often, in the intersection between these two zones. One such activity that has provoked concern among educators and administrators across the nation is the placement of lecture notes online (sometimes for sale) by for-profit companies that claim to provide the notes as a service to students. The notes are usually accompanied by extensive commercial advertising and exhibit widely varying degrees of quality. As some instructors report, these notes commonly fail to convey the lecture completely or accurately, for example, by ignoring shifts in tone assumed for pedagogical purposes (irony, sarcasm), or by the misattribution of controversial statements quoted in lecture. While such concerns have always applied to student notes, they have only recently gained a worldwide audience.

This burgeoning industry has raised questions in the areas of pedagogy, academic freedom, copyright law, and freedom of speech. Some universities have banned the companies as unauthorized commercial activity. Others have decreed that taking, selling or using online notes is academic misconduct. Some faculty members have embraced the notes as a practice that provides an additional resource for students: by comparing notes, students learn to verify whether they understand important concepts; by participating in "chat rooms," students engage in scholarly discussions with their peers.

On our campus, responses range from the oblivious to the angry and from demands for prohibition to passive support. Since the issues are complex and we have a tradition of honoring the autonomy of instructors and their academic freedom, we encourage faculty and staff to be aware of this issue and determine what, if any, individual response they would like to pursue.


Instructors who are concerned about students taking and selling notes may wish to consider one or more of the following short term responses. To some degree, all of these responses are likely to affect the instructor-student relationship and the overall tone of the classroom; therefore, instructors should proceed with due caution before adopting any of these approaches.

  • The "honor system" approach : Discuss the practice of selling notes with students, formally (perhaps by including a position statement on the syllabus) or informally (as an early point made regarding general course policies or recommended study habits). Students, invariably, will be confused or miss class occasionally: while they will want to seek out every resource available, remind them that the quality and reliability of these notes could not substitute for the classroom experience. Offer alternatives -- for example, e-mail clarifications, meeting with the instructor or the TAs, setting up study groups. Finally, instructors may wish to make it clear that they do not allow any note taking services in the classroom. [Note 1]
  • The "technology approach": Given the potential of online resources to enhance in-class learning, instructors should consider posting their own materials online. These might move beyond course descriptions and syllabi to notes, readings, and quizzes. Course management technologies such as Learn@UW offer instructors the ability to publish high quality materials in a password-protected space (limiting access to registered students). An appropriate use of UW-Madison Libraries' Library Course Reserve system (http://www.library.wisc.edu/lcp/), available through Learn@UW and through the MyUW portal may also be useful.
In essence, instructors can provide a competitive product of superior quality. They have control over the content and distribution of the materials, and the relationship between the instructor and the student is not be impinged upon by the commercial interests of a third party unaffiliated with the university. And if the instructors' notes (to which a proper notice of copyright should be attached) should find their way onto commercial websites, that may be a violation of Federal copyright law.
  • The "copyright approach" : In the academic environment, students copy lectures in the form of notes—that permission is implicit, and until now, has not required any explanation that students have limited rights regarding the use and distribution of those copies. [Note 2] If a lecture is not recorded at the time it is delivered, the student's notes from a given lecture are the student's intellectual property which may be used or transferred as the student deems appropriate. However, if the lecture is recorded at the time of delivery, i.e. fixed in a tangible medium of expression which is the basis for copyright protection, the intellectual property interest belongs to the person who is delivering the lecture.
In general, any intellectual property rights that exist regarding lectures or materials that augment them are retained by the instructor, not the university. It is therefore the responsibility of the instructor to assert and protect his or her own property rights over lectures and supporting materials related to them. She or he may be able to do so by informing the students that their rights to make and use a copy is limited.

Should instructors choose to record their lectures, they may want to consider placing the following statement on their syllabi:

“My lectures are protected by state common and federal copyright law. They are my original expressions and I record them at the time that I deliver them to secure copyright protection. As a student in my class, any notes you take from my recorded lecture is a derivative work of my lecture. Under Copyright law, you may not make a derivative work of my copyright protected work unless I grant you permission to do so. Accordingly, you do not have a copyright interest in the notes you take. This means that you do not have the right to provide your notes to anyone else or to make any commercial use of them without express prior permission from me. Unless you are a qualified disabled student, you do not have the right to record my lectures. I only grant you permission to make one set of notes for your own personal use and no other.”

In order to secure these rights, instructors must secure protection by recording their own lectures and keeping the tapes on file as long as necessary -- at least until the end of the semester or until the course is no longer taught. Last but not least, instructors who choose to protect their property rights also assume responsibility for monitoring whether those rights are encroached upon and for taking individual action when they are.


We cannot pass these suggestions along without recognizing that employing them will, invariably, affect the tone of the course. Beginning a course with a discussion of these services may draw more attention to them than they would otherwise attract; expressing opposition may draw still more. Keep in mind that when you assert a property rights interest, you are responsible for securing and protecting those rights. This is not a University responsibility. It can be time consuming to monitor for infringement, to give the student written notice that he or she has engaged in an infringing activity, and to bring an infringement action against a student who fails to adhere to your notice.

Note 1:  In the past, ASM Student Print offered notetaking services for students; however, this service appears no longer to be available.

Note 2:  We are indebted to our colleagues at the University of Texas for providing a model for this document. For more information about their approach, please refer to the University of Texas statement on "Ownership of Lectures: Commercial Note Taking in University Course" at www.utsystem.edu/ogc/intellectualproperty/lectures.htm.


University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Letters and Science
Original L&S version date: November 23, 2010
Updated: 6/17/2014

Keywords:recording, sell, notes, student,   Doc ID:41187
Owner:Elaine K.Group:College of Letters & Science
Created:2014-06-17 16:19 CDTUpdated:2016-08-12 12:28 CDT
Sites:College of Letters & Science
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