Shawn Dhue is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Homework and studying for school have come a long way over the years. When I was in elementary and high school, I remember using Pearson Education (“Pearson”) textbooks for subjects such as math and science. However, I recall certain books had the answers in them. Although answers, the textbook usually gave one- or two-worded answers to those dreadful questions that ended with “explain your answer” or “show all your work.” This issue is why Chegg was created.
Chegg is an online education company that provides textbook solutions, tutoring, and many other student services. The website allows students to input their homework questions and, within minutes, they will receive step-by-step answers to their questions. This service helps home-schooled students, students who complete additional homework questions, and students who are afraid to speak up and ask for help in class, among others. There has been a spike in Chegg subscriptions since the COVID-19 pandemic moved many students to remote learning.
Chegg works by hiring freelance workers to prepare step-by-step processes to answer the questions at the end of each chapter of Pearson textbooks. Although Pearson does not provide these answers nor retain ownership of the solutions, Pearson alleges that Chegg provides its clients with “textbook questions often copied nearly verbatim or with just slight changes.” Additionally, Chegg systematically provides answers to their users, usually organized by titles similar to those in Pearson textbooks.
Pearson filed their complaint on September 13, 2021, in a New Jersey federal court. The complaint makes multiple comparisons between Pearson textbooks and Chegg’s online forum, providing the court with various webpage screenshots. The complaint, made under title 17 of the U.S. Code, subsection 101, states:
“By using and copying Pearson’s original creative content to make answer sets based on that content, Chegg infringes Pearson’s exclusive rights as a copyholder, including the rights of reproduction, preparation of derivative works, and distribution.”
Under the U.S. Code, copyright infringement occurs “when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.” Many lawyers have commented on the possibility of Pearson winning their complaint as it does not quite match the previously mentioned definition. Nicole Haff, a litigation partner at Romano Law PLLC, states, “answers to study guides and explanations to study guide questions are not protected as derivative works under the Copyright Act.” As Pearson only recently submitted the complaint, there is no telling how the courts will decide on the matter at this time.
Importance & Potential Implications
This complaint will definitely be one to follow. In the same interview, Haff explained:
“When the current U.S. Copyright Act was being amended in the 1960s, there was a push from stakeholders in the textbook industry to expand derivative works to include what was being described as supplementary works… prepared by another for the purpose of explaining, illustrating or commenting on tests and answer materials for tests.”
This approach was never adopted, though; hence, the reason for many to question if Pearson will succeed. If Pearson were to win, this judgment would have implications for many stakeholders outside of Pearson and Chegg. Many tutoring companies and education corporations similar to Chegg use the same methods in order to provide their clients with answers that they cannot receive through Pearson textbooks. Students and teachers will also disadvantaged because these homework-helping mechanisms provide easier access to remote learning and help. However, Chegg and other similar services are known to help many students cheat during the pandemic; therefore, I understand many people wanting Pearson’s complaint to prevail.