Udemy: The Problem of Copyright and Education

Udemy LogoOver Thanksgiving break, a copyright and plagiarism controversy arose over Udemy, an online marketplace where instructors can sell courses to users.

The controversy started with Troy Hunt, who found that a course he had created for another marketplace, Pluralsight, was being offered for sale on Udemy for $55.

The course was his almost in its entirety, with only small changes such as removing his name and blurring out his watermarks.

According to Hunt, he had trouble getting Udemy to remove the infringing file. According to Hunt, he would have needed to join Udemy in order to report the file and that Udemy was sluggish to remove the file even after being made aware.

However, for Udemy, the story was only beginning. Other instructors took note of the issue and began discovering that their works were on the site as well, resulting in several additional allegations of piracy.

After the break, Udemy was forced to respond in a blog post, saying that they take copyright issues seriously, that they respond quickly to DMCA notices and, in the case of Hunt, they removed the course in question in less than 24 hours after receiving a DMCA notice, even though the original notice was sent on Thanksgiving Day.

Unfortunately for Udemy, the controversy is far from over as additional reports of pirated courses continue to come in. Many have accused Udemy of knowingly profiting from piracy. In response, the company has said that its team will be meeting to determine ways it can improve the copyright process, including the possibility of making it possible for non-members to flag infringing material and ways to make the reporting easier.

But even if Udemy is able to calm the fires that are still raging, there are serious issues about copyright and plagiarism in online education that will have to be addressed. Unfortunately though, there aren’t any easy answers for instructors or the markets they use.

Misunderstandings About Udemy

udemy2-imageBefore we look deeper into the problem, we first need to understand the Udemy story and clear up a few misunderstandings that arose from it.

  1. Udemy Does Remove Infringing Content: First off, Udemy, contrary to some reports, does remove infringing material. They have a robust copyright policy, that has remained largely unchanged since at least September of this year. Most likely, those struggling to get Udemy to respond to copyright issues were trying to use the more traditional abuse system, which does require setting up an account.
  2. Udemy Did Not Respond Slowly: If Udeny’s timeline of events is to be believed, they responded within 24 hours to the DMCA notice, which was sent on a holiday. That’s a pretty good turnaround by most measures.
  3. Udemy’s Policies are Not Unique: Though there were allegations that Udemy is “crowdsourcing” its copyright enforcement, reliance upon the DMCA (and user reporting) is common among similar businesses including Amazon, Etsy and CafePress, the latter of which has been successful in protecting itself against claims of liability.

To make matters even more disheartening, Udemy’s problems are hardly unique. Amazon, for example, gets regularly called out for plagiarized books sold through its service, Etsy has been called the “Silk Road for copyright infringement” by photographers and CafePress, as we discussed above, has been repeatedly sued for selling copyright-infringing goods.

The truth is that, any time there is a public marketplace for selling original works protected by copyright, there will be a certain percentage of users who will plagiarize and infringe the works of others in hopes of making a quick buck.

It’s sad and it’s frustrating, but it doesn’t mean that Udemy is the biggest villain in the room.

What Udemy Can Do to Improve

This isn’t to say that Udemy is blameless. The company can and should do more to stop plagiarism and copyright infringements among its courses. Though the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects them legally, both ethically and for the sake of their reputation, they need to go above and beyond.

This is especially true since Udemy’s products are both education-oriented and more expensive than much of the fare on Amazon, CafePress, etc. Customers have a greater expectation of originality and the mere fact it’s educational material makes the plagiarism sting all the more.

As such, Udemy can and should do more, especially if it wants to avoid a reputation of being a haven for plagiarists.

A few steps I would recommend include:

  1. Better Vetting of New Instructors: Considering that one of the cases had an instructor take the name of the person they were plagiarizing, it’s clear Udemy is not doing enough to vet new instructors and their first uploads.
  2. Make the Copyright Page Easier to Find: Though I was able to find the copyright page in about 20 seconds, I owe that to my familiarity with hunting on sites like Udemy. Having the copyright link be a separate link in the footer will make it easier for rightsholders to know where to go.
  3. Use the Data: A company the size of Udemy must have great data on its instructors and can spot outliers for additional evaluation. Instructors that upload too much, sell too little or otherwise behave in a way out of the norm may be a great chance to provide additional scrutiny, not just for copyright, but other ethical violations.

However, all of this is dependent on Udemy recognizing that there is a serious problem, something they haven’t done yet.

Instead, in their blog post, they dismissed the severity of the issue by saying:

The good news is, the good actors in the Udemy system are much greater than the bad. On average, over 15,000 courses are uploaded to Udemy per year. So far in 2015, we have received 125 DMCA notifications as well as 45 “Hey, this looks weird maybe you should look into this,” notifications. Our copyright team has looked into every one of these complaints.

While it’s great that they’ve looked into every notice, including less than formal copyright concerns, 170 notices in a year represents nearly one complaint every two days. For a marketplace that can sell products costing hundreds of dollars, that’s potentially very serious.

Furthermore, it’s likely the tip of the iceberg, only representing cases of plagiarism where either the creator or someone who is aware of them discovered the infringement and it was reported. Many, many times that amount is probably on the site right now undetected.

The bigger threat to Udemy here isn’t legal liability, the DMCA protects them there, it’s reputation. If Udemy becomes known as a haven for plagiarized and poor-quality classes, then student dollars will dry up.

However, that’s exactly the risk Udemy faces right now.

The Broader Problem

Even if Udemy does make serious changes in its copyright policy, there’s still a larger issue: Plagiarism and copyright infringement in online courses is almost impossible to prevent.

For starters, you can go to nearly any pirate site and find tons of online courses available to download illegally. The price of these courses, which can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, make them appealing to pirate.

That cost also makes them appealing to attempt to resell. An infringer only needs to sell a few copies of an infringing course to make it worth their while. Even if they get caught quickly, due to quick payouts and false information, it can be difficult to track down such infringers, making the initial vetting process all the more important.

But even if piracy could be stopped, the nature of such online courses makes detection nearly impossible.

The courses themselves contain a mix of text, images, audio, video and interactive portions depending on the exact course. One can’t simply run a plagiarism checker over the course and see if it’s been posted elsewhere. Not only because of the types of content, but because so much of it is behind paywalls where search engines can’t access it.

Without a central repository for all online courses, which is likely unfeasible, there’s just no way to check the content for infringement. However, even with such a repository, it would require matching of multiple types of content it still wouldn’t deal with infringement of outside works, such as an instructor using a popular song in one of their videos.

This is a different problem than the one YouTube, for example, faced with Content ID. It only had one type of content to analyze, video, and was provided a centralized database by rightsholders. While still not perfect, it was more straightforward to implement.

As such, there will likely never be a Content ID for online courses, at least not until searchability and technology both drastically improve.

Bottom Line

The unfortunate nature of online courses is this: The high price of online courses make them appealing to both pirate for personal use and for resale. However, the nature of online courses make the tracking of plagiarized copies difficult.

While there’s more than Udemy can and should do, many of the problems and challenges with online courses exist outside the site and aren’t even unique to the industry itself.

In the end, if we are going to have marketplaces that are open to the public to sell their wares, we have to assume that a percentage are going to sell stolen works. That’s true across all public marketplaces from your local flea market to online ones like Udemy.

That doesn’t mean that marketplaces should throw open their doors and accept the thieves. Vetting, monitoring and community management can do a lot to keep them at bay, but even good communities will have a few bad actors.

Over the next few months, we’ll find out if Udemy is a good marketplace with a small problem or a site with a much more systemic issue. Regardless, if Udemy doesn’t act strongly and swiftly, it will be in the latter category at some point, regardless of where it sits today.

After all, it’s not just the good creators who have become aware of piracy on Udemy with the recent outrage, it’s likely that more than a few bad actors have become interested as well.

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