Recent graduate Ryan Stevens sought to put his business degree from Cal State Sacramento to use by creating a website where students can buy and sell lecture notes, old homework, study guides and other class materials.
The site, NoteUtopia.com, which was launched in August, is intended to function as an online community, a place to network, discuss courses and rate professors. But Stevens, 22, has run afoul of a little-known provision of California's education code that prohibits students from selling or distributing class notes for commercial purposes.
Now, the young entrepreneur is battling the California State University system and claims that students' rights have fallen through the cracks. The case also touches on who controls the intellectual property of notes taken during class.
"All through school we're taught not to plagiarize and to use our own words," said Stevens, who lives in San Francisco. "We don't think that the government should be able to tell students what to do with their own handwritten notes."
After Cal State officials learned of the website, they sent Stevens a cease and desist letter on Sept. 21, asking him to stop facilitating the sale of class notes, to inform students about the law and to stop promoting the site to Cal State students.
The university then e-mailed students at its 23 campuses, warning them that selling class notes "including on the NoteUtopia website, is subject to discipline, up through and including expulsion from the university."
Stevens said he complied with the university's requests, but in an Oct. 6 e-mail to Cal State General Counsel Gale S. Baker, he complained about the "slanderous" characterization of his company as violating state law. He said students were canceling their memberships, which are free, for fear of being prosecuted or expelled.
Stevens asked Cal State to send students a follow-up e-mail, retracting some language and alerting them that the site offers other features that are not in dispute. The university declined.
Cal State spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp said it is up to individual campuses to monitor violations of the law. The university is not trying to shut down Stevens' site, but is concerned that some students might use it to skip classes, he said.
The prohibition on publishing class notes for commercial purposes stems from a 2000 law co-sponsored by the California Faculty Assn. after many websites began posting notes without faculty permission.
Professors said that after they spent hours putting together course materials it was unfair for others to profit from them.
"The other issue was that some of these notes were terrible," said Susan Meisenhelder, a Cal State San Bernardino English professor who was president of the faculty group in 2000.
But legal experts said that notwithstanding California's education code, the question of whether the state can prohibit the sale of lecture notes is far from settled.
When students summarize a lecture, they create a new work that they own under federal copyright law, said James D. Nguyen, Beverly Hills attorney and former chairman of the intellectual property section of the State Bar of California.
Stevens thinks it ironic that his website was conceived in a class on entrepreneurship (he got an A-) and insists it wasn't intended to support Ferris Bueller-type students.
He and friends promoted the site last month at Cal State campuses in Sacramento, Chico and the East Bay; they have since gained members from schools across the state and beyond.
Course materials can be shared for free, but the website suggests that students who wish to sell notes charge $1 to $3, with the site keeping a small commission for every transaction.
He would not say how many members have joined but said he, family and friends have invested about $75,000 with a goal of having the venture support itself through advertising revenue. Right now, though, he just wants to keep it going and is hoping the American Civil Liberties Union or a similar group will take up his cause.
"Students' rights are at the core of the issue," he said.