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Udemy’s Online Course Copyright Challenge

Online courses are copyrightable. But not every course you buy benefits the course’s creator. Udemy, one of the largest online marketplaces, recently ran into a piracy problem that illustrates this issue.

What do online content creators and consumers need to know? Read on to find out.

Copyright…What’s That Again?

If you need a quick refresher on what copyright is all about, check out What Is a Copyright? – it’s available for free as a slide presentation or a podcast episode.

Copyright For Online Courses

Online courses are incredibly popular. Through the magic of the Internet, you can learn anything from business skills (shout out to my friends Omar and Nicole at $100 MBA) to how to make things with your dog’s hair.

Like most other types of creative or commercial work, online courses are protected by copyright. Specifically, the component parts of an online course can be protected. These often include written copy (such as a manual, checklist, and sample forms), video or audio elements, and original graphics.

If you create everything in your course from scratch, you will be the copyright owner by default. If multiple people collaborate, you might be joint owners of the copyright.

Copyright, of course, includes the right to prevent others from making copies of your material without your permission. An unauthorized digital copy is just as much of an infringement as a physical copy would be.

Click here for a free intellectual property for entrepreneurs checklist

Enter Udemy

As anyone who’s ever gone online knows, the Internet can quickly turn into a very confusing marketplace of buyers and sellers. (For more on this subject, check out Marina Krakovsky’s excellent book The Middleman Economy: How Brokers, Agents, Dealers, and Everyday Matchmakers Create Value and Profit.)

This state of affairs naturally gave rise to “middleman” sites like Skillshare and, in today’s case, Udemy (pronounced “You to Me”) – one-stop shops for whatever you want to learn. Creators post their courses for sale on Udemy. Udemy handles the infrastructure, provides a trusted brand, and takes a cut of the proceeds. In theory, everybody wins.

So What’s the Problem?

It may shock you to find out that there are some unscrupulous people on the Internet. For as long as people have been selling courses online, others have been stealing that content and posting it on torrent sites and the like. Just search “Online Course Torrent” and see for yourself. (But don’t actually download them unless you know they’re up there legally.)

But it’s another thing if a trusted online source is selling pirated courses. In a recent EdSurge article, Tony Wan reported that Udemy has been accused of doing just that. The accusations seem to be that Udemy has been slow to respond to copyright infringement complaints.

Udemy has a reputation to protect, and an ongoing failure to adequately police the content on their site may bring them afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. As a result, after this issue was reported, they quickly put up a blog post on the subject and I have no doubt they will be proactive in correcting this issue. The purpose of this post isn’t to slam Udemy; it’s simply to bring this issue to light and provide some much needed info to online content creators and consumers.

What Can Course Creators Do to Protect Themselves?

There’s no perfect solution, but here are a few tips:

  • Keep an eye out for infringing versions of your content online. You might want to set up Google Alerts or the like for keywords that are unique to your content.
  • If you see something, say something: any website that hosts user-uploaded content should have a DMCA takedown procedure. These links are often found at the bottom of the homepage under “Terms and Conditions,” “Copyright,” or similar wording.
  • Consider registering the copyright in your online courses. In the U.S., this is fairly inexpensive. Without a copyright registration, you can’t sue (or effectively threaten to sue) someone who’s ripping you off. And if you wait until after the infringement happens to register your copyright, you may lose the right to seek certain damages (which is lawyer-speak for $$.)
  • And, of course, consult an attorney who has experience dealing with intellectual property issues and online content.
Finally – What Are Online Course Creators Saying About This Issue?

I spoke to two prominent online course creators in the process of putting this blog post together. Here are their thoughts on the subject.

ReLaunch Logo

Joel Boggess, host of the ReLaunch podcast and several online courses, including the one I followed to launch my podcast, Products of the Mind, to #1 in seven different iTunes categories. You can find out about his various courses here.

Joel hasn’t personally been a victim of online course theft and had only heard a little about it. From his perspective, he’s focused on looking towards the future rather than trying to stop others from copying his content.


Webinar Ninja Logo

Omar Zenhom, host of the $100 MBA podcast and co-creator of Webinar Ninja.

Omar has had a sales video ripped off, including the actual script being used word for word in another person’s sales video. He said “I try not to let it bother me, I feel like it’s a waste of time if I pursue it because it keeps me away from doing my work.” He doesn’t want to spend the time and effort going after infringers rather than creating new, better content.

However, the topic did come up in Omar’s online mastermind group. He’s heard of people being ripped off before, particularly when the content is for sale in a downloadable format.

Omar summed his thoughts up with: “At the end of the day, you’ve got to handle your business. No one else is going to handle it for you.”

That’s always good advice. Keep an eye on your content, but think before you overreact. Most online course creators would be best served by focusing on creating great content, and not let copyright infringement become too much of a distraction.

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