Website knocked by CSU officials

Young entrepreneur gets lesson in business

The California State University system informed recent Sac State graduate Ryan Stevens that portions of his online business violated state law.

The California State University system informed recent Sac State graduate Ryan Stevens that portions of his online business violated state law.

PHOTO Courtesy of ryan stevens

It started out as an idea in a college business class, but is quickly becoming the black sheep of student-resource websites.

The virtual note-sharing website was created by Ryan Stevens, a recent Sacramento State graduate who had a vision of a network where college students could share, buy and sell notes as well as create discussion boards in order to communicate with others about different classes.

“It came to my mind how great it would be to go online and be able to post a discussion question about what people are studying for an exam, or to download a study guide and look at what they’re studying, and that’s where the idea kind of sparked,” Stevens said recently by phone.

But Stevens’ venture hasn’t gone as smoothly as he had expected. A few weeks ago, the California State University system informed him that some of the services he was providing were illegal and sicced its attorney on NoteUtopia. Meanwhile, campus administrators ordered students to steer clear of those uses.

All students in the CSU system were issued a stern e-mail warning that the site was in violation of Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations, which prohibits the “unauthorized recording, dissemination, or publication of academic presentations (including handwritten notes) for a commercial purpose,” and anyone caught violating this code will be subject to discipline, including expulsion.

In Chico, Connie Huyck, interim director of Chico State’s Student Judicial Affairs Office, forwarded the e-mail to all Chico State students. The message went out on Sept. 28 advising them against the buying and selling of notes. (So far, no Chico State students have been subject to disciplinary action.)

Stevens, who received a “cease and desist” notice from CSU lawyers, criticized the e-mail, saying it contained misleading wording that has made him lose customer accounts. Moreover, it has caused panic among students who have had accounts, he said.

“It’s a very confusing letter to explain,” Stevens said. “A good portion of [students] got the impression that the website as a whole was illegal. … It basically says you cannot upload for sale any class notes that you take while you’re in the classroom listening to your lecture. It doesn’t say that you can’t upload it and share the notes with students for free.”

NoteUtopia doesn’t upload or contribute any notes or material. Rather, it relies on students to provide the information. This is what Stevens insists sets it apart from other websites that offer only general information about classes. The website’s slogan is “Study Better.” It was launched at the end of August, and Chico State students were first to use its note-sharing capabilities.

To comply with the CSU’s demands, Stevens says he was careful to reword portions of the website. He did not remove the “buy and sell” interface of the website, because his plan is to expand the business to schools in other states where the selling of notes isn’t illegal. The site now contains information within the “terms and conditions” section specific to California that informs students of the state law and warns them that, if found in violation of the statute, they also will be in violation of the website’s terms and conditions and their accounts will be terminated.

But that’s not the impression the CN&R got from the site.

Posing as a potential client with a query, the newspaper received this response from the company that seems less than on the up-and-up: “We are a brand new service that launched just over a month ago. We are still getting the word out and getting students to upload their notes. This is why there may not be a whole lot of notes right now. … You can be among the first to upload and start making some cash.” The e-mail, signed simply by the NoteUtopia Team, goes on to link to various video tutorials, including one “To learn more about how to promote your uploads to earn more cash.” It even included information on the Understanding Global Business class at Chico State, where notes are being sold for as much as $15.

Stevens maintains that once he complied with the demands made by the CSU system, he received an e-mail from officials thanking him and wishing him the best of luck in his entrepreneurial endeavors.

Now he’s hoping students will continue to use the site.

“I just want people to know that our website itself is not illegal; we have plenty to offer,” Stevens said.