Pearson Sues Chegg, Alleging Copyright Infringement

The lawsuit could have far-reaching implications for the growing online study guide industry.

September 15, 2021
 
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Pearson Education, a textbook publishing giant, filed suit against the education technology company Chegg for allegedly infringing on Pearson’s copyright only a few months after a partnership between the two companies ended.

Pearson alleges that Chegg infringed on its copyright by selling answers to end-of-chapter questions included in Pearson textbooks. The answers are available to students via Chegg Study, an online tool that provides answers to thousands of homework questions for a monthly fee.

“Those answers are derived from and often copied directly from Pearson’s end of chapter questions themselves,” a press release from Pearson said.

The complaint, filed Monday in the District Court of New Jersey, seeks unspecified damages and a court order that would require Chegg to stop using answer sets derived from Pearson materials. The case could have implications for the entire study guide industry, said Jonathan Band, a lawyer and expert on intellectual property law.

“I​​t could undermine not only Chegg, but you have this entire industry of study guides, and the study guides are all based on existing texts and follow the general selection and arrangement of those texts,” Band said.

Chegg’s subscription base grew by 67 percent over the past year while many students attended classes online during the pandemic, Financial Times reported. Today, the company has 6.6 million users and an $11.1 billion market capitalization.

Pearson’s complaint lists 150 of its textbooks for which Chegg provides hundreds of thousands of answers, using language “copied or paraphrased from the original question,” the Pearson press release said. For example, Chegg Study lists more than 700 answers for questions from Campbell Biology, a popular biology textbook.

A Chegg spokesperson on Tuesday denied the company has violated Pearson’s copyright.

“Chegg will fight Pearson’s allegations vigorously and we believe we are in full compliance with copyright law,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Chegg has been helping millions of students learn and thrive for many years, in compliance with copyright laws, creating a transformative digital learning platform that helps them learn more in less time and at a lower cost.”

Four years ago, the two companies partnered to provide 50 Pearson titles to students via Chegg through an online textbook rental program.

The Chegg spokesperson said that a partnership between the two companies ended on May 31 of this year. They declined to specify what partnership.

A Pearson spokesperson also declined to comment on the partnership Tuesday. “We’re not in a position to be able to comment on our current or former distribution agreements with Chegg,” the spokesperson said.

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Currently, less than 10 percent of Chegg’s new subscriptions are generated from Textbook Solutions, the part of Chegg Study that includes Pearson end-of-chapter questions.

“Pearson’s content -- to which Pearson’s allegations relate -- was only ever a fraction of this Textbook Solutions content,” the Chegg statement said.

Band said determining copyright infringement can be tricky.

“Copyright protects expression, not ideas,” Band said. “On the extremes, it’s very easy to understand, but then there’s a gray area in the middle.”

The case is made even more complicated because it refers to nonfiction texts, which are often more difficult to claim as copyrighted material.

“In a history book or a chemistry book, there’s only a certain number of logical ways to present the material,” Band said. “The individual words or paragraphs -- that’s obviously protected. But if I’m just presenting the information in the same general way using my own words, you don’t want to give the first author a monopoly over the way to present information.”

The lawsuit reflects increased tension between the two companies. Pearson recently launched a subscription service that offers students access to thousands of textbooks for $14.99 per month, putting the publisher in more direct competition with Chegg, Financial Times reported.

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