As an undergraduate at Sacramento State, Ryan Stevens founded NoteUtopia in order to provide a mechanism for students to buy, sell, and share their university course notes. Stevens graduated last spring and NoteUtopia officially launched in August. But less than six weeks into the startup’s history, NoteUtopia has received a cease-and-desist letter from the California State University system, charging that the company violates a provision of the state education code.

The provision in question dates back a decade and reads “no business, agency, or person, including, but not necessarily limited to, an enrolled student, shall prepare, cause to be prepared, give, sell, transfer, or otherwise distribute or publish, for any commercial purpose, any contemporaneous recording of an academic presentation in a classroom or equivalent site of instruction by an instructor of record. This prohibition applies to a recording made in any medium, including, but not necessarily limited to, handwritten or typewritten class notes.

Following the cease-and-desist letter, officials also emailed the students at all 23 universities in the Cal State system, warning them that selling their class notes online “including on the NoteUtopia website, is subject to discipline, up through and including expulsion from the university.”

Fostering (and Fearing) Student Collaboration

Stevens says that NoteUtopia has complied with the letter, adding verbiage to the site to warn Cal State students. But he’s not pleased with the message that the system sent to students as he feels as though it demonized a website that offers more than just a marketplace for students’ class notes. NoteUtopia is meant to function as an online community where students can share information, discuss courses and rate professors – a supplement to, not a replacement for, offline education.

Cal State students could conceivably still share their notes – bypassing the typical $1 or so charge for a set of course-notes. And education code aside, sharing is something that is happening – whether it’s being actively encouraged or not – as more students are opting to collaborate and learn together online.

It’s worth noting, says Stevens, that sororities and fraternities have long had systems for sharing course materials among members. NoteUtopia merely “levels the playing field,” using the Internet to allow anyone to have access to this information.

Who Owns Students’ Notes?

“In school,” says Stevens, “we’re taught that if we put things in our own words, it isn’t plagiarism. So it doesn’t seem like the government should be able to tell us what to do with our own handwritten notes.”

Indeed, the provision of the state education code does some raise questions about intellectual property and the ownership of ideas and course content. If the students don’t own their class-notes – or at least, cannot sell them commercially – who does? The professor? The university? The state?

Stevens says he’s trying to enlist the help of the EFF and the ACLU to make the case for students’ rights here. Regardless, even as the California State School system decrees one thing, it seems clear that more students are interested in collaborating online – whether in a free and open forum or via a marketplace like NoteUtopia.