BURLINGTON, Vt. - When Kenneth Digney-Peer launched a note-taking business at the University of Vermont this school year, he provided fellow students with summaries of course lectures for a fee - and stepped into a controversy over intellectual property rights that has embroiled college campuses from California to Connecticut.
Within weeks of the start of Digney-Peer's GotNotes, the Faculty Senate at UVMbanned commercial note-takers from classes unless they had the permission of the course instructor.
Within months, Digney-Peer's company was bought by a national outfit that negotiated with 60 UVM professors to sit in on their classes. The firm, Versity.com, offered the class notes for free on the World Wide Web.
And Digney-Peer, 24, found himself working as a regional manager for the San Francisco-based company and driving a new white BMW.
"I went from a college kid eating Top Rahman [noodles] to eating out in Italian restaurants every night," said Digney-Peer, who now lives at a fashionable address in Syracuse, N.Y. "I'm having the time of my life now."
"We have a win-win situation," added Jean Richardson, president of UVM's faculty senate, who led the fight to protect professors' rights in the note-taking venture.
"The notes are available to those students who want them in the courses where the professors are allowing it to take place."
Not every academic institution has been so accommodating. The University of California at Berkeley and its sister campus, UCLA, sent letters to commercial note-taking companies to "cease and desist" on their campuses.
Ethical, academic concerns
The University of Maryland-College Park notified some firms of its ethical concerns about making money from a professor's work.
At Harvard and Yale, officials reminded students that selling lecture notes violates university regulations.
The concerns range from infringement of intellectual property rights to the integrity of the educational process. Online notes encourage students to skip classes, critics say.
"The Web is a wonderful teaching tool, but it should only be done with the approval and direction of the faculty instructor," said John Sandbrook, an assistant provost at UCLA's College of Letters and Science.
"To have a company come in try to make a fast buck is a slap at higher education. They are not doing it to help the students. They are doing it to generate [advertising] revenue."
In California, a bill in the state legislature would ban the use of lecture material from a state or community college without the instructor's permission.
The business of providing college class notes to students -- for a fee or for free -- is a decades-old practice. Fraternities and sororities often keep file cabinets of class notes, old quizzes and past exams for their new members.
In medical and law schools, lecture notes from past years are available to new students.
Sharing notes is one thing, professors say. Selling them is another. And the Internet has turned the practice into a commercial phenomenon.
"To me it's like saying you can't use Cliff Notes," said Ron Merelman, a Vermont lawyer who represented GotNotes. "Yet Cliff Notes are sold on every campus in the country.
"And for a professor to be teaching out of texts and then claiming personal intellectual property rights is absurd."
At least 13 companies are offering this service on the Internet to students, according to Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at Purdue University who has written on the issue.
Versity.com and StudentU.com have note-takers on more than 400 campuses who can earn as much as $400 a semester. The companies earn their money not from the students but from the ads they sell on their Web sites.
More than class notes
Their services are not restricted to note-taking. StudentU.com, a Houston-based firm, also offers study tips, time management skills and advice on joining a fraternity.
At the University of Maryland, Versity.com's ads can be found tacked to kiosks, chalked on sidewalks and distributed in classrooms.
"AWESOME Opportunity. Versity.com offers free class lecture notes, local content, contests, and other cool services to college students. All for free! " reads the ad in UM's school newspaper, the Diamondback.
Ryan Beagen, a 22-year-old UM student from Shrewsbury, N.J., has logged onto Versity's Web site to review notes for his marketing class. The quality of the notes wasn't an issue for Beagen - a close friend was taking them.
"Sometimes it just helps to read somebody else's notes to get a different perspective on the class. It almost forms a free study sheet for you," said Beagen. "You're putting faith in somebody else's work. It's a risk a lot of people are willing to take."
Worst grades in 30 years
UVM professor Stephen L. Pastner learned that commercial note-takers were in his anthropology class during an exam review he gave. He noticed his students carrying cherry red folders -- notes provide by an employee of the now-defunct GotNotes.