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Of Course People Are Ripping Off Online Courses

Instructors say that online education market Udemy is hosting ripped-off content.

The cardinal rule of the internet is that if it can be copied, it gets copied, whether it's a song, a video, a picture, a computer program, a poem, or even a viral tweet. The internet has known a lot of piracy, but this is the first time I've ever heard of an online course being pirated.

Troy Hunt—a security researcher who also teaches "Ethical Hacking: Hacking Web Applications" on Udemy's rival site Pluralsight—is not the only one. (His course was copied so extensively that the copycat instructor's "name" on Udemy was "Roy Hunt"). Rob Conery, who teaches a Javascript course on Pluralsight, also reported being copied. Jeffrey Way also encountered infringement back in October.

Udemy is a market for online education. Instructors can sign up, upload their courses, and charge what they want from their students. Udemy hosts the content indefinitely on its own dime, and even spends money advertising the course. If the instructor attracts a student on their own, they keep 100 percent of the fee. If Udemy attracts a student through their advertising, they keep 50 percent of the fee.

"Roy Hunt's" knock-off course had 1415 enrolled students at the time that Troy Hunt posted screencaps. At $47 per student, the alleged copier could have made up to $66,505, but Udemy CEO Dennis Yang wrote in a blogpost on Saturday that, "As the fraudulent instructor had created coupon codes to allow students free access to the course, no money was exchanged in this process." It's unclear as to what happens in other cases, if or when money does exchange hands. Presumably, since Udemy promises "lifetime access" to course materials, the students get their money refunded when a course is taken offline for copyright infringement.

Udemy raised $65 million in its last round of funding, bringing its total funding up to $113 million.

It's not clear whether at any point in the process of creating courses, Udemy verifies anything about the instructor's identity, or even looks at the instructional videos that get uploaded. Conery's videos still had watermarks on them.

I reached out to Udemy, and was redirected to its blogpost. I did not receive specific responses to my questions. For what it's worth, every allegedly infringing course linked out in the Twitter threads and other online discussions about Udemy from last night is now removed.

In the meantime, the discussion has ironically turned into a useful educational exercise in how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) works.

Rob Conery, one of the plagiarized instructors, wrote on Medium:

It's not like people just woke up to copyright infringement. Yes, it happens — but not like this. Udemy actively makes money on the pirated content until they are pressured to take it down.

That's illegal people.

It's… it's actually not. This is literally how the DMCA is intended to work.

Section 512(c) of the DMCA is known as the safe harbor provision. It immunizes online service providers—think YouTube, Reddit, Wordpress, and here, Udemy—from the copyright infringement of their users as long as the service provider fits a number of criteria.

In order to qualify for safe harbor, the service provider can't have "actual knowledge" of infringement. US Courts aren't completely clear on exactly what this means, but it has to be, at the very least, something more than just the knowledge that copyright infringement is happening somewhere out there. Because we all know someone's definitely infringing copyright somewhere at this very moment, just like someone is probably writing erotic fanfiction about Donald Trump and someone else is comparing cranberry sauce to Hitler. This is the internet: these things are going to happen, even if most of us kind of wish they wouldn't.

But just because a deluge of unauthorized Daily Show clips hits YouTube every day doesn't mean that YouTube shouldn't be allowed to exist. The DMCA sets up a system where online service providers receive notices of infringement through a designated DMCA agent. (Udemy's agent, for instance, can be reached at copyright@udemy.com). When the service provider receives a valid notice, they have to "expeditiously" remove or disable access to the infringing material. If they don't, they lose their safe harbor immunity and open themselves up to a lawsuit.

In his Medium post, Conery complains that Udemy asked him for a signature in order to take down the copycat course. This isn't a requirement cooked up out of the blue. A valid DMCA notice has to include a number of things—like information about the infringing material, the original work, contact information, and a signature. The complainant also has to avow a "good faith belief" that the alleged infringement isn't a use authorized by the original owner or by law, and also swear on penalty of perjury that the information they give is correct and that they are authorized to act on behalf of the copyright holder.

Some of the classes on Udemy's front page. Image: Udemy.

The thing is that services don't face any reprisals for complying with invalid notices, whereas they do face liability for being too slow to take things down. This is why we constantly hear stories about dumb takedowns. Like how Vimeo took down random indie short films called "Pixels" after Columbia Pictures freaked out about leaks of the motion picture Pixels, or how YouTube took down a 29-second video of a baby dancing while Prince played in the background, or how Twitter suspended Motherboard contributor Joseph Cox for tweeting a screencap of two spreadsheet cells from the Ashley Madison leak. And these were in response to notices that technically had all their i's dotted and t's crossed—they actually provided the dreaded signature that Conery finds so onerous.

One might imagine that if some unknown person got Conery's blogpost on Medium (also an online service provider, by the definition in the DMCA) taken down through an invalid notice without a signature, Conery would not exactly applaud Medium's dedication to fighting copyright infringement.

The copyright situation with Udemy feels weird because education, even if it's online, doesn't seem to fit in the same category as YouTube or Reddit or imgur. Most of us know and accept that these sites can't preemptively police everything that gets uploaded, but when we're told that that's how an "online education market" like Udemy also works, we're surprised. How can any serious learning environment allow "Roy Hunt" to rip off "Troy Hunt" without being detected immediately? If no one's checking for watermarks, does this mean that a Udemy science course can tell students that the sun revolves around the earth and that jet fuel can't melt steel beams? Does this also mean that the 10th grader taking "High School Algebra for Beginners" is prone to getting rickrolled or goatsed in the middle of a lecture?

"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," said Yang on the Udemy blog. He didn't say what percentage of those notices were acted upon.

So copyright infringement isn't exactly running wild on Udemy, but this isn't the first time it's happened, and it won't be the last. Of course courses are getting copied. "Roy Hunt" didn't make any money—but what about the other copiers? (Jeffrey Way's copier could have made up to $7,087.) As long as real money is at stake, people are going to keep ripping off online courses.