Monday, April 23, 2012

Copyrighted Free Courses - Are the Major Institutional Fashionable Free Online Courses Really Free?

I already mentioned about that issue in a post, but then I just has glanced it. Now I checked it again before register - I was disappointed and didn't sign the conditions. I'll rather satisfy my interest using other resources.

According to my interpretation of the "Terms" at the site, the courses aren't "free" (as in "freedom", liberated), just the opposite.

They might be "free of charge" right now, but as stated, this is a bloody corporate contract, one-side NDA - the bosses can use all you send, but you can't use what they provide, except in the course, i.e. "at work", to serve for the company's own profits, in this case it seems like advertising strategy similar to playing "free" games online.

For fundamental and natural sciences such as Biology, Maths or Neuroscience this is probably OK, they can't claim copyright for the DNA sequence or the formula of Dopamine. However in Computer Science courses I suspect this might be an issue, if you are an entrepreneur or plan to be, because the knowledge and experience (e.g. algorithms) you may gain from the course may turn into "derivative works" of material you've studied from the lectures and the assignments, or just have been exposed to, even if you have experience from other sources. By the terms - you are not allowed to create derivative works.

"Free"  is associated with GNU, GPL, LGPL, BSD, Apache, Creative Commons; Linux, GCC, Wikipedia, Firefox, GIMP,, Eclipse; OpenGL, OpenCV, OpenCL, OpenAL; Public Domain, Copyleft, ...

Copyrighted Free Courses?

See  "Permission to Use Materials" and   "User Material Submission"
I'm not a lawyer, but I agree with my ex-manager from the semiconductor industry who has remarked that  sometimes the work of engineers is like the work of lawyers, because it involves interpreting customers' or architects' requirements which often are like bad laws - vaguely defined and having catches regarding the interpretation.

I admit and suspect that the texts below might be just standard boring lawyers' copyright definitions, or consist of parts from such, "copy-pasted" here by the lawyers of those institutions. It doesn't make them sound less threatening and inappropriate, though.

There's a cite from the publicly available terms, which doesn't require registration

 1) "Permission to Use Materials"

"All content or other materials available on the Sites, including but not limited to code, images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, audio and video clips, HTML files and other content are the property of Coursera and/or its affiliates or licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under the United States and foreign laws. In consideration for your agreement to the terms and conditions contained here, Coursera grants you a personal, non-exclusive, non-transferable license to access and use the Sites. You may download material from the Sites only for your own personal, non-commercial use. You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material. The burden of determining that your use of any information, software or any other content on the Site is permissible rests with you.

2)  "User Material Submission"
The Sites may provide you with the ability to upload certain information, text, or materials, including without limitation, any information, text or materials you post on the Sites’ public forums (“User Content”). With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content. To the extent that you provide User Content, you represent and warrant to Coursera and the Participating Institutions that (a) you have all necessary rights, licenses and/or clearances to provide and use User Content and permit Coursera and the Participating Institutions to use such User Content as provided above; (b) such User Content is accurate and reasonably complete; (c) as between you and Coursera, you shall be responsible for the payment of any third party fees related to the provision and use of such User Content and (d) such User Content does not and will not infringe or misappropriate any third party rights (including without limitation privacy, publicity, intellectual property and any other proprietary rights, such as copyright, trademark and patent rights) or constitute a fraudulent statement or misrepresentation or unfair business practice.
The Sites may also provide you with ability to upload or send information to Coursera regarding the Sites or related services (“Feedback”). By submitting the Feedback, you hereby grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions an irrevocable license to use, disclose, reproduce, distribute, sublicense, prepare derivative works of, publicly perform and publicly display any such submission.


That doesn't sound free to me. That's an exploitation of resources send by users for free - e.g. code send by a very talented student, who sends original solution of a problem, - while the resources provided by "the good will" of the INSTITUTION" (a dreadful anti-freedom word) are locked, and "the burden of determining that your use of any information, software or any other content on the Site is permissible rests with you."

Let's see the following case:

1) A student takes a course in Compilers.
2) It consists of some theories and techniques, some of which are 50-60 years old, or 40 at least and can be found in every textbook, or even re-invented, or found in free-compilers, e.g. GCC.
3) Some time later the student then create a "derivative work" - develop a new compiler.

If it's a compiler with current meaning of "compiler" and current computers, it surely will use some or all of the algorithms that were included also in the course, and there might be code segments which would be similar to ones taught in course (well, there aren't 100000 ways to code a few steps algorithm optimally).

However, if you use those algorithms and similar code - "derivative works" and make profit, you may be taken responsible for infringing rights of the INSTITUTION (sounds like "the corporation" of which you're an employee for free, meaning - you work for free).

You may know the algorithms from other sources prior or after the course (you may have been a bad student, or quit mid term; or learn it, but then forget all and re-learn years later. Or what about studying the code of GNU C++, Open JDK, or just borrowing a few textbooks from the library?

Well, sorry - if it was in the course (if it's important, it perhaps will be mentioned somehow there), then you might be a violator of the copyright of the INSTITUTION.

Opinion: You're talking bullshit, of course nobody will interpret it like that!

Who knows and why not?  The only way to prove it won't be interpreted that way is a clarification from the organizers.

I just follow the "Permission" claims:  The burden of determining that your use of any information, software or any other content on the Site is permissible rests with you.



See also: "Всички права запазени! | All Rights Reserved! - сатирично есе относно мъгливи декларации, припомнено от SOPA и ACTA" -- (a reissue of an article of the copyright vagueness and absurd definitions, that I wrote back in 2003)

- News: Computer Vision, NLP etc. - On-line Courses from Berkeley, Stanford, MTU --


vvoooooll said...

You are mixing up copyright and patent. Copyrights do not apply to ideas. Patents do, but only on certain preconditions. Not everything is patentable (ideas with prior art etc). Copyright does apply to given expression form of ideas, not to ideas nor information themselves. That means, you cannot just plain copy.
Do you have different regulations in your country?

Todor "Tosh" Arnaudov said...

Thanks for your comment, woooooll,

In my country ideas (mathematical theories, ...) are stated as "not patentable" also, however I think this is usually fuzzy (except a revolutionary invention), and the "expression forms of ideas" are just representations of the "ideas", what's essential is the difference in the "idea", not just the expression.

Especially if it's about code -- there are no 1 million ways to code something optimally not just with a given programming language, but with a given paradigm, because the differences are not essential.
The names of the variables or other details are not essential, there are particular approaches to do particular tasks.

Plain copy - to what extent? It starts with the incapability of an average human to remember without tools those data. However, what if you have memory that's good enough and you remember it, and apparently it will impact you. You're supposed to forget it, so why you've read it/perceive it.

The same goes to the statements on the back of the covers of the books, the reference article is about that absurd issue - you're prohibited to remember the content of the book, meaning you're prohibited to read it, unless you lack memory.


The extent of difference to the original is fuzzy, structurally and conceptually two works are always identical at some degree of comparison and generalization, even if their "expression" is different at a higher resolution of perception (details).

Expression which seems "different" to some evaluators may seem exactly the same to others (i.e. non-substantial changes *according to* someone, who evaluates it (a patent office or so). However who defines "substantial" in each case, and why?

What's the extent of the "derivative work", what's the "basis", there are catches in those texts. Like with evolution, everything is a "derivative work" of some prior "arts".

If your work doesn't bother the "owners", they won't do anything. If it does, they'll find you.

"State of the art" or something which is a "contribution to the art", as in patent related texts, are usually very fuzzy, too. See for example some of the pathetic software patents in the USA.

I've once checked a patent of "clicking with the mouse on a graphical button in an email" or something. LOL...

The problem with this terms (to me) is that they state:

-- "...are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights..."

-- "the burden of determining that your use of any information, software or any other content on the Site is permissible rests with you.

It sounds to me like:

Please don't do anything with it, because it *might* be illegal, when you do it it might be too late...