I have a class in a US university that is using a 3rd-party site to charge students a fee to access some of the homework essential to the course. One of the instructors (not mine) holds the copyright to these required Excel spreadsheets, and so every student is being assessed a small fee in order to complete their homework.

With online classes using an ebook publisher's website, paying to be able to do homework is common practice. But that fee is usually assessed and disclosed as part of the textbook/ebook access fee. For this course, we are already paying such a fee for the ebook publisher's website.

Is it normal (or generally acceptable) for an instructor to create a privately-owned website in order to collect "copyright fees" from students because that instructor created original homework files? Is it normal for instructors to require students to pay to use intangible, intellectual property? Or, failing being a regular occurrence, does it at least happen with a high enough frequency to be a noticed, if not often used, practice?

We are explicitly being told the charge is for the use of the copyrighted materials and is a copyright fee, rather than a licensing or maintenance fee. I've never come across this or even heard of it being done before, so I call on the experience of those more grounded in academic norms.

This isn't a matter of purchasing supplies or textbook fees, as those are already assessed by the University or comply with University policy. The nature of the assignment and materials is also not so complex or technically difficult that assignments, or reasonable alternatives, could not be provided using existing University resources.

While I greatly appreciate the input of the SE community, I know that I also have ways to investigate this at my specific institution and am not using SE as a substitute for doing my own due diligence.

  • 2
  • 1
    Related: Is it ethical for a lecturer to require students to purchase an online learning kit where kit is used for course assessments? (of course, that situation does not have the conflict of interest inherent in this one.)
    – ff524
    Sep 2, 2015 at 20:06
  • 1
    You're obviously looking for someone to agree with you that it is uncommon (based on your question and comments to answers). I agree, it is uncommon for this exact scenario to occur. I also happen to find it at least marginally unethical, although I know that does not interest you.
    – Dan
    Sep 2, 2015 at 21:11
  • 1
    I've certainly never heard of such practice. I know lots of examples of instructors hiding required course materials that they created behind a password, but not even one that requires additional payment beyond tuition. But my experience is anecdote, not real data.
    – JeffE
    Sep 2, 2015 at 21:23
  • 3
    My first reaction here is : "Is this even legal?" ...
    – Autar
    Sep 3, 2015 at 7:54

4 Answers 4


I think that, at best, there is a conflict of interest for an instructor to force students to use a web service that charges money of which s/he gets a cut.

That said, are you sure that that's how it is? For textbooks -- where the same conflict of interest exists -- it is common practice at many universities that if a professor uses her own textbook for a class, that that part of the royalties that the professor receives through his own students' purchases actually goes into a university fund outside the professor's control. The same may in fact be the case at your university -- the professor may simply never have talked about the details in class.

  • 4
    I have had multiple classes where the textbook author is the instructor. That's understandable, and that information is provided up front: The instructor and textbook are disclosed before classes begin, and you may have the option to pick a different course. You may also be able to charge the textbook to your school bill. And, you may also be able to purchase the book secondhand. You're also getting something: a textbook. But, I'm not asking specifically about the ethics, but whether or not this is a common practice.
    – user30980
    Sep 2, 2015 at 20:40
  • 1
    CreationEdge: I doubt it's common tight now... but I don't know how to prove that one way or the other without doing an industry survey study. Anything less is anecdote/opinion.
    – keshlam
    Sep 2, 2015 at 20:45
  • 1
    Indeed. I've never heard of such an arrangement. So I don't think it's "common", but I wouldn't know "how uncommon" it is. Sep 4, 2015 at 11:19

The main point is that it seems that the only reason why the website is set up is to collect the fees, as it would be no problem to distribute them in another way. To me, this is a big difference to the charging for a paper copy scenario, where actually costs occur: If the instructor is not provided free printing facilities, then it would not be unreasonable to actually ask the students to pay the price he has paid to make the copies (in fact, I remember having paid such copy fees). If he does not do this for profit, but only in order not to have to pay the copy out of his own pocket, it's fine. Charging when the instructor does not have any expenses (or could avoid them easily by using free university services), in contrast, would be unethical, I believe,

  • 3
    Whether or not it's fine, or related to costs, is this a normal practice?
    – user30980
    Sep 2, 2015 at 20:41
  • At my high school and my university (both in Germany, 1990's and 2000's) we were charged a copy fee in some classes where we got a lot of copies (think of some euros per year), and I think it was not common in all classes, but definitly not unheard of. One should keep in mind, though, that tuition is/was free in Germany. So, at least in that country at that time, it was a quite normal practice.
    – damian
    Sep 2, 2015 at 20:48
  • Students at my university are assessed a technology fee than includes an allotment of page printing (thousands of pages), and overages are charged to our University bill. But that's for a physical supply, which this is not. We're being charged just to look at something and turn in an assignment. All things we could do with all of our already-paid-for resources. Is that normal?
    – user30980
    Sep 2, 2015 at 21:01
  • 9
    I would not consider that normal, no. Not at all.
    – damian
    Sep 2, 2015 at 21:08
  • 11
    It feels even more unethical, given that the instructor probably wrote these exercises as part as his (already paid) job. Sep 3, 2015 at 0:24

It is like charging students for handouts, which could include homework assignments, and also like charging students to acquire a mandatory textbook which contains homework assignments. Suppose that the institution had no printing / copying facilities available to the instructor (there are such places). Then you probably would not expect the instructor to provide free instructional materials, any more that you would expect the instructor to provide free sulfur if you were taking a chemistry lab class. So I think the web page matter does cloud the issue, or at least complicate it.

Since this involves a third party website, it is reasonable to assume that the copyright holder has some contractual duty to that company to provide revenue, that is, they probably get a percentage, and the copyright holder isn't allowed to give out free copies to his own students.

If indeed the author created his own company for distributing the materials and thus can set policy, he could in principle give his own students a free ride (and we would then expect a question about whether it is fair for an instructor to give free access to just his own students). So that could mean that it is possible for the author to make materials free to his own students; that does not mean that he is morally obligated to do so.

It seems to me the question boils down to the broader issue of whether an academician should profit from the sale of his intellectual creations to his students, or to any students. That's not the question that you asked, but if you agree that it is proper for a person to profit from the sale of his intellectual creations, then I think you would have to agree that that extends to sale to one's own students, and that the textbook / homework distinction is not material.

  • I don't think charging students for textbooks is at all like charging students for class-specific handouts. There are usually specific policies in place for textbook sales. Supplies, also, can usually be purchased from your choice of vendors. Regardless, we're not being charged for the supplies (students already pay fees for all sorts of technology issues, as well as being provided printing allotments and way to charge supplies directly to the university). This has been the explicit communication to us (it's strictly a copyright licensing fee, in their words).
    – user30980
    Sep 2, 2015 at 20:27

Sounds fishy to me...having to pay a "copyright fee" to access required homework/classwork. And, who is getting this fee??

I can understand buying a textbook, paying for copying/handouts (usually in my case, those were just the cost of making the copies), paying for supplies (for extra things or were included in the course's cost, e.g. an extra lab fee). In those cases, you got a tangible product in your hand. And, as was stated, you could buy new or used and via alternate vendors -- especially books.

Shouldn't that "fee" be included in a courses costs, not paid for by students directly? If it's truly "necessary" for class, shouldn't it be part of the course's cost -- not an additional charge?

True, I've been out of school for many years...so the commonality of this I can't answer...but, it sounds rather odd.

You must log in to answer this question.