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Sharing Your Notes Online -- and Getting Paid for It

September 19, 2008

Succeeding in college requires diligence -- regularly attending class, paying close attention, taking copious (and complete) notes. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a way to make some pocket change on the side, just for being a good student?

There's no indication, alas, that colleges are considering rewarding their students for doing well (besides good grades, that is). But one service, unveiled this week, is betting that it's doing the next best thing by serving as a hub for class notes, papers and other materials -- and paying the students who supply them for their labors.

Knetwit, as it's called, is a Web site that combines some familiar Web 2.0 features -- user profiles, file sharing, online communities -- with the goals of campus note-taking services. Its creators dropped out of Babson College to launch the service, now with backing of at least $5 million in venture capital and other funds. They have ambitions to develop it into a one-stop destination for educational content not only for students, but for professors and researchers as well.

As is often the case with new sites that rely on user-supplied content -- and especially those that direct advertising revenue to members based on the popularity of that content -- the model could raise some thorny legal questions, such as ones that continue to dog paper-based note-taking services, namely: At what point do class notes become indistinguishable from lecturers' intellectual property? And how much legal responsibility does the site bear for the contributions of its members?

Students -- or, potentially, professors -- join the site for free and can post their notes, papers and other assignments that might be helpful to others. Depending on one's point of view, that could be equivalent to study sessions or tantamount to cheating. Either way, users can search the site for materials they're looking for -- by keyword, tag, class or institution, for example -- and download them for free. Students rack up points -- what the site calls "Koins" -- for every download by someone else of something they've submitted, and those points can be redeemed for prizes at the Knetwit store or for money, through PayPal.

A potential pitfall is that students could theoretically upload anything, from plagiarized material to scanned copyrighted text. As a preemptive measure, the site is organized in the hope that students will police themselves, a bit like Wikipedia, by reporting potential copyright violations. Its FAQ section advises students: "You are free to use any material on Knetwit as a resource to aid your studies. However, Knetwit does not condone plagiarism or cheating of any kind and will do everything it can to prevent users from doing so. Please refer to your schools [sic] student handbook for specific rules your school enforces regarding the sharing of notes." Most common file types are accepted, with no real pre-screening mechanism.

The site's founders, Benjamin Wald and Tyler Jenks, say it will soon expand to other media, such as video and audio. Eventually, they see it as a platform to connect academic institutions around the world and to make content available in many different languages.

"You have a growing number of people online who are utilizing these educational resources, but there’s no dominant place for them to connect to each other," said Wald, citing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare as an example of an online repository of free course materials. If someone wanted to take a class through that site online, for example, they could then use Knetwit to search for study guides and other resources, he suggested. Of course, OpenCourseWare features materials prepared by professors at one of the world's top universities, while this site could feature a paper written in an all-nighter by a C student.

And what better way to encourage students to upload their work than to pay them for it? Rather than the site's owners making a profit off of others' content (like YouTube), Wald continued, "why don't we create an economic incentive by giving that money back to the users, and actually a pretty substantial amount?"

The site's proprietary "Koins," earned for every download, are redeemable for about 4 cents each, a value that could increase, and users can start cashing in if they hit $10. Like other social-media sites, moreover, Knetwit rewards those whose contributions get the most hits -- or, in this case, downloads. "The average note just isn't going to be downloaded unless [the student] puts some effort into it," Jenks noted.

Combining a money-making enterprise with a site that hosts uploaded content raises some familiar issues, not least of which is whether students legitimately own the copyright to the content they submit. Similar questions arose in 1996, when the University of Florida unsuccessfully sued a note-taking service, A-Plus Notes, alleging copyright infringement. Some -- including legal advisers to Knetwit -- have taken that ruling to mean that much of what lecturers say in class amounts to factual information that cannot be copyrighted, essentially protecting note-taking services.

That view may still be challenged, however. In April, an e-textbook publisher and a University of Florida professor sued Einstein's Notes over study guides they allege violate the copyright of his lectures. The professor's lawyer said at the time that the case had a better foundation than the 1996 suit, since the lectures are recorded with registered copyrights.

"If the notes capture the professor’s words rather than merely concepts, then the professor ordinarily would have to give permission for the notes to be uploaded," said Jessica Litman, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who specializes in digital copyright and intellectual property. "The professor owns the copyright of what she says, and the professor is allowing students to take notes, indeed encouraging students to take notes. The scope of the license is for their own personal use. There are lots of fields in which instructors turn their lecture notes eventually into publishable texts, so few of them would be willing to say to the students ... 'Yes, you can give that to the whole world.'"

On the other hand, Litman added, if the notes cover only the ideas and information from the lecture, "copyright doesn’t extend to that so long as you stay away from what the professor says and how she says it.”

Now, the model of companies paying students to take notes is migrating online, just as many students have started taking ever-more-verbatim notes on their laptops, rather than on paper. Earlier this year, PostYourTest.com encouraged students to upload their exams (sometimes enticing them with prizes), raising similar legal doubts, and sites like Koofers.com make exams, study guides and other materials available for free to anyone who signs up. Knetwit takes the concept a step further by adding financial incentives and social networking features.

"The argument that they’re making is fair use, and it’s pretty hard to make a plausible fair use argument out of selling your class notes, so I think to the extent anyone ever sued these services, and it’s not my impression anyone actually has, I think that services would be in trouble," Litman said. Furthermore, she added that in some cases, copyright may belong to a professor's employer -- that is, the university.

Already, the site is partnering with colleges to promote itself and, in the case of Florida Southern College, to operate as a platform for students with disabilities who require notes to be prepared for their lectures through a campus tutoring program.

At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, near where Knetwit is based, the company recently handed out bottles of water at a Greek event in return for access to students for promotional purposes, said Chuck Cantrell, the vice chancellor for university relations.

"One of our faculty members who sort of oversees our copyright and [intellectual property] issues here on campus met with some of the Knetwit folks before we agreed to this and felt that they had some safeguards in place to protect intellectual property," he said, "and also, I guess the bottom line is, the world is changing, and this is a new way of sharing information, and we wanted our students to have an opportunity to be exposed to it in a positive way....

"The bottom line is, we couldn't stop them [from joining] anyway."

 

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