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I want to create a database of notes and previous exams for classes at my university, however, I am not sure if this is legal. I just want to know if this is OK or would I get a cease and desist or something similar from my university? And does posting the exams with/without answers make a difference?

Edit: Sincerely I didn't expect such quick responses and so many of them so thank you guys and thanks to all that may answer in advance. But also, I think I need to clarify some things to get a more concrete answer. First, I want to make clear that I will not charge anything for this website or access to it, second of all, I would change all the numbers of the questions, from say 2 + 2 to 7 + 5, and I don't think mathematics in any way shape or form can be copyrighted, of course exact wording and scenarios like Alice went can, but not something like prove the sum from 1 to n is (n(n+1))/2 or if it indeed is please point me to a US copyright law that says that. Per my understanding, "known, rational facts" cannot be copyrighted, since then you wouldn't even be able to do math to begin with because you'd be using way too many formulas written for other people.

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    Did you write the exams? Do you own the copyright to them?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 21:23
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    "I just want to know if this is OK or would I get a cease and desist or something similar from my university?" Asking whether this is OK or you would "get a cease and desist from your university" is rather like asking whether it is OK to cheat on exams or whether you will end up in jail if you cheat. In other words, the space between the two extreme options is rather large. Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 23:09
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    you might get a better legal answer from the legal forum.
    – user156207
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 12:34
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    Don't waste your time, do some sport, travel or socialize rather being busy with this stuff. Let others do some fair amount of studying.
    – yarchik
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 7:50
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    Surely the exams at your university are more complex than just a single question like „prove the sum from 1 to n is (n(n+1))/2“, no? Just because a small excerpt would not be protected by copyright does not mean an entire work is not protected by Copyright, nor that chopping it up but keeping all the pieces avoids Copyright. Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 4:55

7 Answers 7

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"Legal" is a local question. Probably civic, not criminal, law. But it isn't appropriate. The questions were probably created by someone else and if there is any creative element in them, then they are likely covered by copyright, even if not explicitly stated. That could be a legal issue. Appropriateness, however, is a different, possibly more important, issue.

But, if they can be found, you are also subverting the educational process if you make cheating possible on reused questions. While professors probably should't reuse exam questions, the reality is that they do. Shortcuts taken for grades are seldom an educational/learning benefit for those who take them.

You could, of course, ask your professors for their position on this. They might agree or not. But it would be respectful to do so.

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    "subverting the educational process" Not necessarily. In Germany, it is common that the AStA maintains a collection of old exams, often including the solutions. Everyone is aware of this and thus professors don't reuse exams. (To be honest, if an exam is well-designed, studying it to a point where you can answer the questions should result in sufficient mastery of the material to be allowed to pass. Working through old exams taught me almost as much as visiting the lectures.)
    – user9482
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 5:29
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    +1 for suggesting asking the instructors who composed the exams. (And if one is reluctant to hear the composers' wishes, that in itself is probably the answer.) Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 7:30
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    “If you make cheating possible on reused questions”: sorry, correctly answering an exam question because it was reused absolutely does not count as “cheating”. And as for “subverting the educational process”, if anyone can be said to be subverting the educational process it is the professors who reuse exam questions. To put it differently, an educational process that depends on a large group of people collectively keeping a shared secret despite never agreeing to keep it secret or having any incentive to, frankly deserves to be subverted.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 16:58
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    Is it really inappropriate? Perhaps I'm being naive. I come from the UK, and for every exam I've ever taken the only preparation ever recommended in the run-up to an exam is practicing past papers. Exam boards make them available online, and websites offering worked solutions to every past paper ever written are common. People make careers out of it, and students would be substantially worse off if this (copyright-violating, perhaps) practice were not common. Is that outweighed by the convenience for an exam setter? Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 20:32
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    @DmitrySavostyanov Recognised by who? I've never seen an institution that simultaneously uses written exams and does not encourage practising from past papers. If your past papers only test pattern matching, they aren't worth writing. Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 17:43
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In all jurisdictions I know, professors (or in some cases their employers) retain copyrights over their exams, so unless the copyright holder themselves post the exams and you link to their site, it is illegal for you to repost unless you have permission.

The same holds for lecture notes or any other material, including third party material that may have been used by instructors (v.g. images, slides, audio contents etc.), especially as such material may be updated to remove obsolete material or correct errors.

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    In countries where universities are publicly owned, and where works created by the government are not protected by copyright, this doesn't seem like it should be a given.
    – kaya3
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 8:21
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    @anjama No, that would be plagiarism by the colleague. Plagiarism and copyright are two different issues.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 13:37
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    @kaya3 I work at a publicly funded university and I still own copyrights to all my exams and course notes. Students cannot reproduce or distribute said exams or course notes without my consent or in some cases the contents of the university (v.g. for final exams available to students via a university website.) Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 15:07
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    My point is: simply because the government is the source of university funding does not imply in any way that the government automatically owns the rights to my work, or that I forfeited copyrights to my work. The university or government certainly do not own copyrights to my papers, which are creative works produced under employment: in fact when I publish something I transfer the copyright to the journal without government or university involvement. Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 15:14
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    When I started my post-graduate study in Australia, one of the documents I signed clearly laid out where ownership of intellectual property lies. This is quite different to industry where my employment contract specifically claims all related work I do in employment as the property of my emploter. Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 22:01
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At my university, sharing course material without authorization is a fairly direct violation of our academic honesty policy.

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    Academic honesty policy? This sounds like it would apply to sharing an exam with other students who would be taking that exam. I would not expect it to apply to an exam taken in the past. Is this what you mean?
    – kaya3
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 8:23
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    @kaya3 - any material given to a student as part of a course. I suppose sanction options go down after a student graduates, but anything short of that, we'll find an appropriate sanction for. Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 10:44
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    @user156207 "What the Uni thinks" is certainly a factor towards legality - if they have policies that specifically allow this, then it is highly unlikely that any jurisdiction will find it to be illegal. On the other hand, a clear policy against sharing, may well draw a "line in the sand" that does make it illegal.
    – MikeB
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 8:39
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    @preferred_anon if you have to quickly jump between "what's legal" and "what's ethical" to maintain your argument, it often indicates a weakness of your position. Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 17:29
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    @ScottSeidman You probably could - and I'm taking us off topic so we should probably agree to disagree. But I disagree strongly: the whole point of education is to share knowledge, and a policy that forbids that seems unethical. Nobody objects to free access of their research papers (I hope?) and I don't see how teaching materials are any different. The regulation sounds like it's to do with cheating, but merely sharing resources does not imply that. Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 17:50
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  • The legality of "creating a database" differ from country to country, and without knowing the details it is impossible to give an exact answer to your question.
  • It may also depend on the purpose. Keeping info for personal use is probably fine; sharing it with others may violate the copyright.
  • Your University may have its own rules on what is permitted for you as a student. For example, you may be granted free unrestricted access to a book, software license or electronic service, but you lose these rights when you complete your course and are no longer a student. If in doubt, ask your University first.
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While I agree with most other answers regarding the copyright issue, I want to give a different perspective on "subverting the educational process" or "academic dishonesty": in my country and field of study, the student government had an offline repository of written accounts of oral exams and written exams. This is in fact one of the primary functions of that institution for most students. Some of the written exams were provided by the instructors, though typically without answers, to the student government. Other written exams would be handed to the students after grading, and the most successful ones were retained in the repository. In some cases, learning from these old exams was about the only way to understand the questions, unfortunately. In all cases, they were valuable tools for checking the study progress and useful practice. Note that all students were well aware of the material, which was provided either free of charge (written exams, you pay only for the copies) or for a "bottle return" fee (oral exam accounts, you get your money back after writing up your own).

Of course, if your institution handles this differently, then things are different. All of this to say: besides the copyright issue, there is also an issue of findability/accessibility. If only some students know about your repository, an unfair advantage may arise.

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    Publishing them yourself isn't the same as a governmental repository. The expectations of professors will be different.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 14:13
  • FWIW, as a former student and currently lecturer at a German university (which I assume you refer to) I feel there is a huge difference between the Fachschaft ("student association/government") and individuals. The Fachschaft is associated with the university, has an actual policy for handing out materials fairly, and is usually a diverse group of people. In contrast an individual student will leave university sooner or later, may try to act for personal gain or even just get bored, and may be biased against lecturers/lectures. It's much easier to come to an agreement with the former. Commented Oct 25, 2022 at 15:44
  • Good to see a matter modeler here!
    – Nik
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 0:24
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Although there are already answers that are on the mark, I have to add that, in the United States at least, every fraternity and sorority known to mankind has filing cabinets full of old exams. In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if they haven't scanned at least the newer ones and established a database just such as you are asking about.

What they have not done is published that database. My non-lawyer mind says that scanning might be fair use and so might not be a copyright violation but publication of such a database absolutely would be. Since you've included a "publication" tag on your question, I presume you intend to publish this database, possibly on the Internet.

In that case, the answer to your question is No, it's not legal, whether you get away with it or not. Someone else owns the copyright on those exams, and you have no right to publish them. It isn't even necessary to debate who owns that copyright, whether professor, university, book publisher, or someone else. To address an addition to your question, it also doesn't make any difference that you do not plan to charge for access. It is the act of publication that creates the copyright violation.

I'm retired, but I used to put copyright notices on my exams to try to frustrate outfits like Chegg and Course Hero who collect such material (that they haven't created) and charge for access to it. It doesn't stop them, but if I win the lottery I'll sue them into oblivion!

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    "If I win the lottery I'll sue" is a refreshingly realistic counterpoint to the the typical "It's easy to get rich with a lawsuit" advice encountered from non-lawyers (or unethical lawyers) on the internet.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 22:09
  • Yes, the idea was basically put it in a Google sites. However, then the question arises, can math questions be copyrighted? since indeed all of my courses are math or math based, would changing the numbers then in the questions which could be reduced from "Alice buys apples and she pays 5 dollars for each denoted by the formula 5x" to something like graph 5x would that be a copyright violation? I mean that is just not something you can't copyright or at least I'd hope a math equation cannot be copyrighted, the idea again is to mostly help students for free, not to provide answers like chegg Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 23:33
  • @BryanKrause I also observe that buying lottery tickets does not significantly increase one's odds of winning the lottery. So, Chegg and Course Hero are probably safe from me. Maybe Elsevier will sue them into oblivion.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 13:18
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    @MiguelRodriguez The web site librarycopyright.net says, "Numbers and basic math problems with only numbers and symbols probably aren't protected by copyright. Word problems would be, as would any descriptive text. However, the selection and arrangement of even numerical math problems could be protected by copyright." (Emphasis added.) As people keep telling you, this might be country-specific, but in general what you propose would not be legal. You mention Google. I can almost guarantee that someone would send Google a DMCA notice and Google would remove your site.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 13:22
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It would definitely help if you state which country you are in.

As a (former) professor from Canada, yes it is extremely common for professors to re-use exams due to time constraints. In some cases, the professor may have never taught the course before (everyone has a first time) and has no material of their own.

In some universities, midterms are often returned to the student and used for study purposes, but publishing the midterm by the student would be a copyright violation of the professors intellectual property. At least in Canada, the professor OWNS the copyright to any material they produce, otherwise free and open research could never happen.

At my institution, final exams were never returned.

Unless you're in Germany (apparently), providing a copy of a past test to students currently taking the same course where it is likely known the questions will be re-used, can be seen as the same thing as looking at the exam before hand to know what questions will be on it. That may come down to a personal choice.

For-profit sites that contain previous tests are great for students, and terrible for professors. There are (I believe) professors who seek to have their material taken down from such sites because their permission was not given to publish it there. Is is more of a intellectual property stance and not specifically because they plan on re-using the questions.

If you go ahead and publish it, and you DO get a cease and desist letter from your university, wouldn't you stop publishing it? If so, then nothing else would happen.

Is it legal? Probably. Should you? Probably not.

Your best course of action would be to simply post questions on the topic that you wrote. Then provide the answers if that is what you want to do.

And then you'll find out how hard it is to write different questions every 4 months to check for the same knowledge (varies by discipline of course).

It could also lead to a future money generator for you when you create a course on the topic (that you wrote) like all those bloggers out there. :)

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  • "At least in Canada, the professor OWNS the copyright to any material they produce, otherwise free and open research could never happen." - what do you mean by this? People share research papers all the time. Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 15:17
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    I am in the US in case that changes your response in any way Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 23:38
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    @preferred_anon: People share research papers all the time, but without intellectual property people would take credit for other people's work. Research is tied to funding, awards, and prestige, so ownership of research and "discoveries" is very important. To some people anyway. Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 17:54
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    @RickHenderson I don't think that's true. Copyright protects expressions of ideas, not the ideas themselves. If I read your paper, understand your idea & express it in a novel way without crediting you, I have not infringed your copyright (but I have plagiarised). Copyright primarily prevents distributing copies, which for most research is a good thing (maybe for books people disagree, but that's essentially about making money, not plagiarism). Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 13:09
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    @preferred_anon What you describe is fine - learn the material then write a book. What the OP is asking is more like taking the "Reader Exercises" appendix of a text book and publishing that on its own. Yes, it is beneficial to students, no, its not legal
    – MikeB
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 12:30

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