California State University has barred students from buying and selling lecture notes online through a new note-sharing service called NoteUtopia.
The university sent a cease-and-desist letter to the San Francisco-based company on September 21, ordering it to stop commercial operations across all 23 of the system’s campuses. Cal State also sent out a systemwide e-mail warning students that selling class notes violates state law and could, in extreme cases, result in expulsion.
According to Michael Uhlenkamp, a Cal State spokesman, the service violates the portion of the state education code barring the distribution of lecture records, including “handwritten or typewritten class notes,” for profit. Since the company received the letter last month, Mr. Uhlenkamp said, its officials have “done what we’ve asked them to do,” including stopping active marketing and publishing a disclaimer on their site warning users that selling lecture notes is illegal.
That does not mean that the site is shutting down, however. Though it can no longer promote the sale of course material, the site can continue to operate so long as no one reaps commercial gain from lecture notes. Users can, therefore, continue to share their notes, as long as they’re not getting paid for them, and other materials, like outlines and old homework, can still be sold. Ryan Stevens, the company’s founder, said he was disappointed with the law “because it made it look like our entire site was illegal.”
“Legally, it’s a matter of changing your notes from being sold to being free,” he said.
Mr. Stevens, then a student at California State University at Sacramento, founded NoteUtopia in 2008 as a space for classmates to share course materials and discuss classes online. After coming home confused from a lecture one day, Mr. Stevens asked himself, “How great would it be if we could go online and ask somebody a question about it?”
Similar to sites like Course Hero and PostYourTest.com, NoteUtopia allowed registered students to upload their lecture notes, essays, and old exams, and name their price. Their classmates could then buy the material, looking at user ratings on the quality and reliability of a seller’s note-taking to determine if it was worth the money.
The Web site, which is available only to California students, made a major advertising push at Cal State’s campuses at Chico, East Bay, and Sacramento when the site began operating, in August. It also encouraged student note-sellers to advertise their own course material through social networks and with fliers available for download from the site.
With commercial operations at a standstill, the company is attempting once again to reach out to students to let them know that the site is still open for business. Mr. Stevens said the systemwide e-mail actually spread the word about his company to new markets on campuses across the state, and more students are asking to join the network.
NoteUtopia has also contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights for free speech and consumer rights online, to push back against the education code. “We think it’s a students’ rights issue,” Mr. Stevens said. The university is “telling us you write it in your own words, but we tell you what can do with it.”
Mr. Uhlenkamp said Cal State just wanted the site to comply with state law. Their ruling is not meant as a statement on intellectual property, he said, and the university is “simply saying that the service as it was laid out was prohibited by the education code.”