Updated: Feb 15, 2021
Most of your students are probably great, but there's always that one...
You have an online course that leverages everything you’ve learned over your career. And it’s not just fluff - your students often thank you for delivering such amazing results. You charge a premium price for your course because it’s literally the distillation of all of your experience and expertise.
But there’s one problem: your copyright in the course is not registered.
But isn’t registering my copyright just a useless formality? Isn’t it enough to just throw the © symbol on there and call it a day?
I hate to break it to you, but former students have been known to steal online courses and resell them themselves. If the copyright isn’t registered, there may be little a copyright owner can do.
Can you give me a specific example of this happening? I thought you’d never ask.
Case Dismissed: San Jose Options, Inc. vs. Ho Chung Yeh
In 2014, San Jose Options, Inc. (SJO) sued its former student, Ho Chung Yeh. SJO offers online courses in stock trading, some of which include pretty advanced techniques. Yeh was one of SJO’s competitors. In 2010, Yeh signed up for SJO’s course using a fake name to conceal his identity. Yeh then proceeded to download many, if not all, of the course materials. He also befriended SJO’s owner, Morris Puma by chatting him up over email and providing a testimonial. Two months after signing up for SJO’s course, Yeh started advertising that he had a new “advanced course” coming soon.
Puma got a tip in late 2011 that someone may be ripping off his course. But he wasn’t sure until 2013 when he was finally able to get copies of the competing course. Not only was it the same material, but Yeh was also passing it off as his own work.
So, Puma sued for copyright infringement, and the court . . . dismissed the case.
Problem was, Puma had never registered the copyright in the online course. And the law says that you can’t bring a copyright infringement lawsuit unless you have tried to register the copyright first. (There are some exceptions, but none of them are relevant here). If Puma had registered his copyright, he might have had a slam dunk case and even recovered monetary damages to make up for it.
Yet Another Sneaky Student: David Siler & Distinctive Human Resources, Inc. vs. Elga Lejarza
In 2019, Distinctive Human Resources, Inc. (Distinctive HR) sued its former student, Elga Lejarza. Distinctive HR sells online courses to help people pass HR certification exams. In 2011, Lejarza bought one of the online courses. Lejarza also owned a competing business named HR Consulting and Compliance Trainings (HR Consulting) which also sold course materials online.
In 2018, Distinctive HR got a tip that someone was using their course materials “word-for-word”. When Distinctive HR went back and checked their records, they saw that Lejarza had accessed their site thousands of times, sometimes with overlapping sessions. This suggested that not only had Lejarza herself copied the materials, but she had also given the login information to her staff to do the same.
Thankfully, Distinctive HR had registered the copyright in their course materials. As a result, their lawsuit survived the motion to dismiss and was allowed to continue.
My takeaway from these cases is that online courses are unfortunately easy to steal. It’s easy for a competitor to gain access and it can take a long time to catch them. One way that online course creators can protect themselves is by registering their copyright. Copyright registration allows the owner to sue if necessary to protect their rights.
While suing is never fun, the Copyright Act seeks to compensate copyright owners for their troubles. Copyright owners who win can either claim actual damages and profits (if known) or up to $150,000 per infringement.
In conclusion: it pays to have Copyright Law on your side.
Thanks for reading the Bevel Law Blog! While this information is hopefully helpful to you, nothing in this blog is intended to be legal advice. Always consult a lawyer before making any legal decisions based on topics in this blog.
Like free legal tips? Find them here on the Bevel Law Blog. Ready to hand off your legal to-do list to a professional so that you can get back to CEO things? Book a call today at bevellaw.com/book.