Can a professor copyright an exam?

I am wondering if a professor can copyright an exam... For example, I am taking a biology course in University and we had a 50 question multiple choice exam... Firstly, if the questions is factual (along the lines of "Which of the following statements are correct?", or "What occurs after glycolysis?" can they br protected or can they be redistributed? Secondly, although it is a multiple choice exam, the student is choosing the answer and is it therefore considered his/her own expression?

As far as the material being redistributed... It will be redistributed solely for educational purposes, i.e. emailed to a friend or student taking the class in the future to help them study and prepare for an exam.

(I do know that redistributing an exam will tend to upset professors, and many professors recycle exams, however, that is another issue. My concern here is strict legalities and whether I can or cannot redistribute an exam under fair use for educational purposes.)


3 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Favorite Answer

    (1) YES, a professor CAN copyright an exam. Of course, copyright only protects "expression" and not "facts," so some of these factual questions may not, in and of themselves be copyrightable (if there's no "originality" to the question). However, other parts of the exam are copyrightable -- like the order and selection of the multiple choice answers, the order and selection of questions (which could be considered independently copyrightable "factual compilation"), and the particular expression used for longer questions.

    Don't believe me? Look at this case between the entity that creates the bar exam and a study-prep company:

    (2) The "first sale" doctrine provides that, if the professor GIVES you the exam, you can do whatever you want with that copy (except, of course, to make more copies from it). So if you want to put it in an exam file or pass it on to a student, copyright law wouldn't prohibit that. Now, there may be other agreements, such as the school code of ethics, a confidentiality contract, or other regulations, that may affect that, but not copyright law. Of course, if you COPY the test, or if you acquire the test when the professor has taken it back into his possession, that's a whole different kettle of fish.

    (3) A student adding his own answers may either be a derivative work or may be independently copyrightable material (although circling "c" on a multiple choice portion would not likely be considered "original" as required by the Copyright Act). However, that does not change the fact that the underlying work is still copyrighted.

    (4) The previous answer by one user is COMPLETELY wrong. First, it doesn't matter if the work is for "educational use" or not. It's still covered by copyright. Now, if you use a PORTION of a copyrighted work for educational purposes, that may allow you to gain the benefit of a very specific defense called "fair use," but the fair use defense will likely not cover a wholesale copying of someone else's work.

    Second, copyright is original to the author. There has to be a specific, written "works for hire" contract between the author and his employer for the school to have copyright. And, in academia, the standard is for the professor, NOT the institution, to have copyrights in anything created for academic purposes. And even if the institution owned the copyright, by copying the test, you'd still be violating copyright -- but it would be the school who would sue you rather than the prof.

    Finally, copyright infringement is NOT about profits. If you make copies and give away copyrighted materials, you've committed infringement. Now, if you don't do it for profit, you cannot be charged with criminal copyright infringement (i.e. punished by the state), but you can still be sued.

    In summary:

    (1) Professors CAN have copyrights in tests

    (2) If the prof gives you the test back, you CAN GIVE it to someone else without violating copyright (but no guarantees that you're not violating some other rules). You CANNOT COPY the test without technically violating copyright (whether the professor cares or not is a different story)

    (3) The fact that it was education, or not for profit, technically doesn't matter under the Copyright Act. However, that may make a difference in determining whether you can be prosecuted by the government and what damages would be if a civil action was brought against you.

    Hope this was helpful.

    Source(s): See the U.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. s. 101, et. seq.
    • Login to reply the answers
  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Anything written and published is automatically copyright for 70 years after the death of the author. Now that may be more complex in a school or college, because their may be an agreement that the author's intellectual property developed while employed is transferred to the organization; but in either case, their is copyright in that material.

    In copyright terms, anything you add to a document (like checking the answers) simply creates a 'derivitive work' which is still copyright infringement.

    • Login to reply the answers
  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Copyright does include provisions that exclude any claims because the material was used in education. So, does your example include a classroom?

    Copyright normally belongs to the employer. So, does your example clarify if the professor has authority to copyright on company time?

    Copyright pertains to money. So, in your example do you sell the copy or did the professor/university lose income by you giving away a copy?

    • Login to reply the answers
Still have questions? Get your answers by asking now.