Hoping to Identify Cheaters, a Professor Sues His Own Students

One professor is going to unusual lengths to identify the students who he believes cheated in his class: He is suing them in federal court.

The professor, David Berkovitz, who teaches business law at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., filed a lawsuit against an unnamed group of his students — identified only as “Does” — after he discovered in January that the midterm and final exams he had given in the spring of 2021 had been uploaded to a popular website that students use to share lecture notes, sample quizzes, syllabuses and other documents.

In filing the suit, which accuses the students of copyright infringement, Professor Berkovitz hopes to force the website, Course Hero, to identify those who uploaded the exams along with sample answers that were also on the website, his lawyer, Marc E. Hankin, said on Thursday.

If successful, Professor Berkovitz plans to turn over the names to Chapman’s honor board, Mr. Hankin said. Because Chapman’s business school requires grading on a curve, Professor Berkovitz is worried that students who cheated may have unfairly caused their classmates who played by the rules to receive grades lower down on the curve.

“The moral and ethical failing notwithstanding, the real concern is these students are hurting their fellow classmates,” Mr. Hankin said.

Students whose scholarships are tied to a minimum grade point average could lose those scholarships through no fault of their own and could even have to leave school, he said. “That’s the real harm he’s trying to prevent,” Mr. Hankin said.

While the lawsuit seeks damages and lawyers’ fees, Mr. Hankin said that Professor Berkovitz, who is a lawyer, was “certainly not in this for the money” and might drop the suit once he was able to identify those who uploaded the exams.

Course Hero, which is not named as a defendant in the suit, said it would comply with a subpoena, which Mr. Hankin said he expected to serve in the next day or two.

“Our response is always in keeping with the law, so if they produce a subpoena, we will help them with their investigation,” Sean Michael Morris, Course Hero’s vice president of academics, said in an interview.

Mr. Morris described Course Hero, which was founded in 2006, as a peer-to-peer study platform through which students and faculty members can upload documents to share with one another “almost like a library.”

The company allows students who upload documents to get free access to some documents and sells subscriptions for greater access. Those subscriptions begin at $9.95 a month.

While the site has been accused of being a fertile ground for cheating, Course Hero says on its website that it “does not tolerate copyright infringement, plagiarism or cheating of any kind.”

Anyone who misuses Course Hero “to gain an unfair advantage; submits another member’s content as their own; or violates any law, regulation, ethics code, or school code will be permanently banned from the platform,” the company says on its website.

Mr. Hankin said that Professor Berkovitz discovered his exams had been uploaded to Course Hero after stumbling upon the site in January.

He believed that the exams had been uploaded by students who were cheating in his Business 215 class, which was taught remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

He asked Course Hero to identify the users who had uploaded the exams but was told by the company that he would need a subpoena, Mr. Hankin said.

So Professor Berkovitz copyrighted his April 2021 midterm and May 2021 final exams as a prerequisite to filing a federal lawsuit accusing unnamed students of copyright infringement.

The lawsuit, which he filed on March 10 in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, allows him to subpoena Course Hero for the students’ names and IP addresses and the dates they uploaded the exams, Mr. Hankin said.

The suit says the unidentified students “infringed Berkovitz’s exclusive right to reproduce, make copies, distribute, or create derivative works by publishing the midterm exam and final exam on the Course Hero website without Berkovitz’s permission.”

Mr. Hankin said that Course Hero could not be sued directly because “we don’t have the evidence they have done anything wrong other than provide a forum” for documents.

In a statement, Course Hero said that it “does not tolerate copyright infringement of any kind and employs a range of preventative measures, investigation and enforcement policies.”

“Course Hero never wants unauthorized content on our site, and before students and educators upload their content, they must agree to our terms of use and academic honor code, which explicitly states they may only upload content they have the right to upload,” the company said.

Mr. Morris said he hoped the case would prompt “much larger questions” about the competitive forces and pressures that lead students to cheat. He called that “a ripe conversation to be having when something like this comes up.”

Chapman University, which is not part of the lawsuit, said in a statement that “with limited exceptions, professors own the copyrights to their work.”

“Professors are free to pursue the removal of their copyright-protected content from websites such as Course Hero,” the university said. “However, we encourage faculty to use internal processes to work through student concerns.”

Mr. Hankin said the lawsuit seeks to “protect students who did not cheat and perhaps have the students who cheated disciplined.”

“We’re trying to get to the bottom of who was it, how many people, and what exactly did they do?” he said.