Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Does Coursera Care About Copyrights?

Coursera’s Science Fiction and Fantasy course is currently going through its second iteration and I was momentarily tempted to see if anything had changed but I resisted the temptation.  Knowing how poorly structured and run the initial course was the last thing I needed to confirm is that nothing had changed.

Recently it came to my attention that something quite significant has not changed.  Forget the abuse and harassment some students experienced within the course.  Ignore the plagiarism and the worthless peer reviews.  (Remember the person whose peer reviews amounted to nothing because the reviewer merely wrote out the words one two three etc.?)

What I want to know is this:  What, if anything, does Coursera plan to do about the pirating of copyrighted materials? 

While most of the material used within the course was freely available through Project Gutenberg, on ereaders like the Kindle or Nook, etc.  However, not all of the books were available online for free.  Specifically:
The course description clearly states that all of the readings, except these two, are available for free.  Furthermore, the course was designed in such a way that the student did not have to submit essays or even do evaluations for 3 of the assignments so skipping these two books would be of no consequence.

It wasn’t long before one could find people on the forums offering copies of these books, saying they would scan copies of them and send them to whomever.  Were they charging for the copies?  Does it matter? 

Fact:  Copying the books for distribution was not necessary for someone to pass the course.
Fact:  Copying the books is illegal and a violation of copyright.
Fact:  The students are cooperating in this on the forums within Coursera
Fact:   Coursera isn’t doing a damn thing about it.

Dr. Rabkin assures and reassures the enrolled students that the forums are monitored.  If that’s the case, does this mean that someone in Coursera is seeing the students offering pirated copies of these copyrighted texts and saying nothing? 

If someone is truly monitoring the forums then yes, Coursera is turning a blind eye to copyright infringement.

I can understand why publishers are unable to address the issue of individuals scanning and distributing copies of books but I would imagine that they would at least be able to demand that Coursera do something about this.  They did nothing about it when I was taking the course.  And, from what I understand, there are already students boldly announcing that they have pirated copies available to anyone who wants or needs them.  But since nobody needs to do all of the assignments to pass the course, then there is no need to do this whatsoever. 

So clearly Coursera doesn’t care or Rabkin is lying when he says that anyone is monitoring the forums.  Either way, Ace Books (a division of Penguin Publishers) and Simon & Schuster can enjoy many iterations of Coursera condoning illegal use of their copyrighted books. 


  1. Buying something for a free course is not an appealing idea, so I can understand those pirating, but I also don't approve of this. But stopping it is not that easy. I think the easiest way is just to exclude copyrighted books. But it'd be a pity, as they are pretty important in the course. There is also a possibility to make an agreement with some e-publisher to provide these books for free for courserians (there are even e-books that get auto-deleted after a month, for example), but it's unlikely Coursera will bother(

    1. Of course Coursera can't stop it altogether but what they can do is simple enough.

      1) Not allow any messages on the message boards promoting the pirating of copyrighted materials. In other words, delete the threads as soon as they manifest or as quickly as possible. (They are easy enough to find. On the day I wrote this post the SECOND most popular post was about where to get the pirated books).

      2) Expel any students who disseminate copyrighted resources if they do it within the Coursera website. Of course students can and will communicate with one another about how to obtain pirated copies outside of Coursera.

      But let's say you shared a link here in my blog to pirated resources. I can easily delete your comment with the link and then I can block you so you would no longer have the ability to do this through my blog. Coursera has a responsibility for what they are creating and they can easily take control of this, and other things, but I agree. Coursera can't be bothered and so they are condoning the theft.

      And while it would be a shame if Coursera were forced to exclude copyrighted books from the curriculum for this one course but it is a greater shame that LeGuin herself and Bradbury's estate are losing profits from sales for which the authors themselves have worked hard. There are plenty of freely available and more contemporary short stories and novellas available online and while it might take some effort to redesign the course, it would be he least they could do in light of the evidence of how their system is being used and abused.

  2. For a online school that lets people take college quality classes for free you are a bit hard on them. Granted you can't a degree from them, but hey it's "Free".

    1. Spartacus, I'm only going to disagree because I have been very positive and commended and even recommended a different course. I am, however, very hard regarding this course because it was so poorly organized. I have a deep desire to see MOOCs succeed. And I believe that free access is not an excuse for poor quality. If MOOCs are to succeed, they need to offer something worth having. Otherwise, we may as well all read a book. No degree involved in that either and we can get books for free at the library.