Yale University has demanded that notes taken at Yale lectures be withdrawn from a major website that provides online lecture notes to students.
University attorney Dorothy Robinson said staff had become "concerned about the appropriation of their intellectual property, their ideas, the errors in the notes, and the misrepresentation of their lectures" by Versity.com, one of an expanding number of internet services that provide lecture notes.
The company immediately complied, but the protest seemed likely to lead to similar demands from other schools.
But a spokeswoman for Palo Alto-based Versity.com said there was no threat. She cited an agreement reached with the University of Vermont, which nearly banned the website's note-takers from its classrooms, but ultimately chose to allow them at the discretion of professors.
As many as a dozen commercial internet sites have sprung up offering notes from classes on dozens of campuses. Most are free, paying students to post notes from their courses and profiting from advertising. Neither the professors, nor the universities, are compensated.
Created last year by four students at the University of Michigan, Versity.com also features links to academic resources and reference sites, as does one of its competitors, StudentU.Com. Along with a third leading company, Study24-7.com, these sites offer lecture notes from about 400 US universities.
University faculties complain that the new services are profiting from their words without permission. But US copyright law is unclear on who owns the notes from lectures.
Administrators at some schools contend that professors retain the copyright. At Kansas State University, faculty have begun adding a statement to their class schedules that reads: "Students are prohibited from selling (or being paid for taking) notes during this course by any person or commercial firm without the express written permission of the professor teaching this course."
The University of Florida lost a case in 1993 when it sued a company that sold lecture notes. The jury concluded that most of what a professor says in class does not belong to anyone. And operators of the websites, anticipating legal challenges, say they are not providing a verbatim transcript but merely a "high-quality interpretation" of the lecture.