I was the TA for a course a few years ago. As part of the course, I was able to obtain a set of business case studies. At the bottom of each page, it is written something to the effect of:

This document is authorized for use by [my name], from [start date] to [end date], in the course [name of course] at [name of school]. Any unauthorized use or reproduction of this document is strictly prohibited.

Is it ethical for me to keep these readings after the course is over, and to read them some time in the future?


I appreciate the opinions of all who answered and commented.

I had asked this question because the licensing agreement sounds too bad to be true. The students had to pay more than $100 for all the readings for this course. If the students were to purchase a textbook, at least they are allowed to keep it and read it in the future. I suspect that the publishers wishes they had the technology available to make the case studies like the "Mission Impossible" style self-destruct messages which would explode once it is past the license end date. This seems acceptable to me for software, but strange for something like readings.

At the end of the day, I have to make my own decision about what is the right thing to do in this instance.

  • 5
    The question asks about ethics, but the answers all seem to be about laws. Law and ethics are completely different things. The ethical side of the question seems to be purely a matter of opinion. Personally the part of this story that seems ethically loathsome to me is the actions of the people supplying the readings and attempting to impose this license on people who never consented to it. This may be relevant: gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.en.html . – Ben Crowell Sep 18 '15 at 20:02
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    One "right thing to do" is to complain vociferously to the department head about this choice of material/license. While there may be some benefit to using real world case studies instead of carefully crafted synthetic ones, it surely isn't enough to justify robbing the students of their class materials, which they purchased, at the end of the term. – Ben Voigt Sep 19 '15 at 3:53
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    "This seems acceptable to me for software, but strange for something like readings." Holy smoke, this hurt so much you may as well have punched me. Software is speech, too. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Right_to_Read – Daniel R. Collins Sep 12 '17 at 3:58
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Technically, it may not be ethical to keep a case or data set past its license period. Most dataset licenses also specifically state that the holder should not hold material of both physical or digital form (or even preprocessed form) of the licensed matter past its license term. It also stated that the backup of all forms should be deleted.

Having stated above, it is still a widely practised taboo to use cases and datasets past their license periods. You may attain knowledge from it but will only get into trouble if you were to publish any material that relates to the dataset/case that you currently possess beyond its license. This also depends on how strictly the license owner enforces the license.

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    The legal/moral status doesn't depend on the owner doing sloppy enforcement of their rights. – vonbrand Sep 17 '15 at 22:59
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    As included in the first paragraph, it isn't legal to keep documents owned by another entity which is licensed to you beyond limited period. I just stated the level of risk involved depends on what you do with the document. – Ébe Isaac Sep 18 '15 at 4:01

That is a highly specific restriction, I'm not going to discuss whether or not it is legal and to what extent, but take it as it is. It clearly states the extent of your use of the readings, so after the licence expires you can't use them any longer. That certainly includes presenting them in another course or the same one next year or putting them online etc. But, I don't think there are ethical reasons why you couldn't keep them for yourself, since you already had unrestricted access to that information for some period of time. So in that light, you could've learned them by heart or transcribed them into your notebook by the time the licence expired.

Bottom line, from the ethical point, I don't think the restriction applies for your personal use. From the practical point, you could contact whoever licensed the readings in the first place and inquire the specifics.

The answer is implicit in the condition that you mentioned: the document is authorized for use by you, for a specific period, and only for a particular course. Anything else is prohibited. You may ethically keep the objects (printed pieces of paper) as long as you do not use them in any way whatsoever, which would include reading them. Bottom line, the restriction does not say anything about a personal use exception. As with any contractual matter, you can always ask for a free modification of the conditions, but you must ask.

I don't see how the ethical question can be answered completely without the legal question whether the statement is binding or not and to what extent.

  • It is certainly ethical to find out whether the conditions are legal in your country - particularly, if the conditions seem to be "too bad to be true". The fact that a publisher writes some conditions does not necessarily mean that they are binding in your legislation.
    Copyright legislation here (Germany) allows teachers to copy e.g. a chapter of a book for their course - the university has to pay for that (via VG Wort) but doesn't need to ask for permission - unless the publisher offers e.g. a dedicated teaching pack - which may or may not be the case in this question.

  • My "legal feeling" again for my legislation (Germany*) is that there is a big difference between going on the use the course material as a participant of a course (OK) vs. going on to use the course material as a teacher for a new course (not OK).

  • In this question, what is ethical for me coincides with what is legal. I don't see any reason to apply ethical guidelines here that are more strict than what my legislation asks for. Nor do I think there are good reasons for not paying the legally required fees (AFAIK 0,008 EUR/text page/course) for use of teaching material (the more so as university teaching is privileged here over commercial courses where that easy procedure does not apply).

It looks like the use outside of that particular course and date range is prohibited. You might probably keep the documents/data, but you can't use it at all. Even using it for a completely unrelated purpose (say as practice data for statistical analysis in another course) is not allowed even during said date range.

The conditions imposed are quite draconian, and might even be considered unreasonable. But that would be for a court of law to decide, and you don't want to go near that. You agreed, abide by them.

  • 1
    actually the OP asked whether it is ethical, not whether it is legal, so that's not a question for a court of law. Some things are ethical that aren't legal, and vice versa. Given that you recognize the legal restrictions are draconian, one may plausibly argue that it is those restrictions that are unethical and that there is nothing wrong with breaking them. In fact, even the law recognizes that a contractual obligation entered into willingly by a party may be invalid for ethical reasons (look up "unconscionable contract"), so even a court of law may not agree with you. – Dan Romik Sep 18 '15 at 2:33
  • You agreed, abide by them. The OP never stated that s/he agreed. – Ben Crowell Sep 18 '15 at 19:57
  • @BenCrowell, then OP was not entitled to use them during the course either. – vonbrand Sep 18 '15 at 23:16
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    @vonbrand: What rights does the OP not have, without this license? He wouldn't have the right to make copies, but it doesn't sound like he wants to. – Ben Voigt Sep 19 '15 at 3:50

I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the kind of disclaimer you've described is legally baseless in the USA, and you shouldn't feel bad about ignoring it. Feel free to keep your readings, refer to them, and cite them in the future. Once you've purchased a physical copy (without some agreement otherwise) nobody can legally place restrictions on the ways you use your physical copy.

If you want a strictly ethical answer, I would say that it's unethical for the editor of your readings to try and restrict the ways in which students use the material they've purchased. They've got no legal basis to do so, unless you've signed a contract or otherwise mutually agreed on some restrictions. You may upset someone by ignoring their wishes, but that's not the same thing as being unethical.

The relevant US legal concept is called the First-Sale Doctrine. It says that once you purchase or otherwise obtain a physical copy of a written work, you are then free to do with it whatever you want. You can take that physical copy and keep it, you can read it, you can sell it to another student taking the class next year. Once the owner sells the physical copy, they lose any interest or control in the physical copy, and you are free to do with it what you wish.

Note, however, that copyright law prevents you from freely copying a work. You have your physical copy and can do most anything with it, but you're not allowed to make your own copies and then distribute them.

As an aside, any teacher who is telling students that they can't keep written documents and notes from their class, without an extremely good reason (the course material is considered secret or privileged), is probably not a teacher you want to have. My guess is that the person who added that statement wants to encourage every student to purchase a new copy of the course materials every semester at full price. I would call that behavior grossly unethical- students are not a cash cow to be milked at every opportunity.

The definition of Ethical Behavior as defined in an entry from www.businessdictionary.com is:

Acting in ways consistent with what society and individuals typically think are good values.

Ethical behavior tends to be good for business and involves demonstrating respect for key moral principles that include honesty, fairness, equality, dignity, diversity and individual rights.

As you are discussing your decision and your action and in general our society has an expectation that people will honor the terms of the contracts that they enter into, then in order to act ethically you would likely need to either

  1. Destroy all of the copies of the business cases that you obtained under the license and not use them.
  2. Request an extension as user6726 suggests
  3. Purchase a new license to the material
  4. Borrow a copy of the material from a library that has license to lend the material to you.

If you entered into and agreed to a contract, whether implicitly as was the case here, or explicitly, then violating the terms of the contract without agreeing to a change of terms with your contract partner or receiving a legal judgement that the terms of the contract are illegal and therefore you are not obligated to follow them would be an unethical choice.

To further add to this would be the idea of fairness, as you mention with regard to the fact that the students that took the class were required to pay for the readings where as you received the material to use in the context of teaching them. The license was either paid for by the school, which means indirectly by the students or from a grant obtained by the instructor for the course, or was a comp from the publisher for the instructor selecting the material for the course in the first place. So while you could argue that your use is not really harming the copyright holder, the fairness argument to those who had to pay for the license, namely the students, calls into question the ethics of using them and strengths the case for not using the material.

That being said, I find the ethics of the publishers that chose these types of limited licenses highly questionable. When I have seen these types of licenses, they are generally for texts that get updated with great frequency, and the updates to most every chapter are at most a few sentences or a figure or two. It is part of a broader business model to make used textbooks less valuable and to force students to purchase the version of the text that the instructor is using. This is more the case where an instructor assigns homework problems and the problems are renumbered or parts of the problem are changed so that either the instructor needs to manage responses from multiple editions or they need to insist that everyone buy the new version. Another way to devalue used editions is to sell and get instructors to use online material which is licensed only to a single user and expires with the end of the course.

The problem is that two wrongs do not make a right. So just because the publishers are behaving questionably does not mean that it gives license to act unethically in response. Can you do it and live with yourself? Sure. But that is entirely your choice. And as you said, only you can answer that question for yourself. Strictly, in a legal framework you are breaking the terms of your contract and their copyright. And as a few of the commenters above stated, if you were to then use that material for new work produced, you could likely find yourself in trouble not only with the copyright holder, but also your institution if you published based on material you did not expressly have license to access.

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