Math Copyrights?
June 18, 2005 7:07 PM   Subscribe

How does copyright work in regards to mathematics problems?

Our university sells past years math exams at the campus bookstore. However, the exams are multiple choice and the solutions only list the correct answer - not how it was obtained. I tutor quite a bit during the year and my students have expressed their frustration at this. This summer, I was planning to write out complete solutions to the problems and then, during the year, sell this for a nominal fee (say $5).

My question is: would this be violating any of the university's copyrights?
posted by jplank to Education (9 answers total)
You could always test the system by publishing solutions to the incorrect answers.
Seriously: Aren't they the ones to ask?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:08 PM on June 18, 2005

Seriously: Aren't they the ones to ask?

Not necessarily. The question shouldn't be "will the University like it?" but rather "can jplank get away with it?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:11 PM on June 18, 2005

I'm no expert in copyright law, but I've had some experience with the world of math publishing. Well, people publish solutions to others' problems all the time. The university does not own the problems and especially not the solutions (only the particular way in which the problems are phrased). In fact, the very same problems (with slight modifications) often appear in dozens of different textbooks. My guess is that even if the university published a complete solution set you'd be free to publish your own solutions (of course, so long as you were not copying theirs). You should, however, provide full details about where you got the problems, and you should probably stay away from quoting the problems themselves. As for the solutions, they are your original work, and there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to publish them. But, again, just to cover my ass, IANAL.
posted by epimorph at 11:37 PM on June 18, 2005

Aren't mathematical problems prior art by design?

(It isn't like the University is asking students to solve previously unsolved proofs, but rather drawing out the answer to questions that have been asked and answered before.)
posted by Rothko at 12:08 PM on June 19, 2005

You cannot copyright facts. It's as simple as that. You might get in trouble if you stole the name of their text or used the name of your school in the title of your product but other than that, you have nothing to worry about.
posted by pwb503 at 2:22 PM on June 19, 2005

Prior art is a patent concept and has nothing to do with copyrights.
posted by grouse at 3:00 PM on June 19, 2005

You should talk to someone at the university to make sure you don't get auto-lawyered (though that seems unlikely, given how small-time your operation would be). I find it hard to believe that the university wouldn't be totally cool with your attempts to increase the value of their educational offerings.
posted by breath at 3:55 PM on June 19, 2005

Can't you just change some of the numbers and words in the questions, so that it's obviously the same mathematic problem that requires the same process to solve as the matching question from the previous year exam, but the answer is different and copyright isn't an issue.

This might even boost the usefulness value of your book, because it shows the student how it's done, and then (if they have the previous year's test book) they have an identical problem to try where the working is not given (the matching question from last year's exam)

Eg, worst case is if the questions have elaborate descriptions, in which case:
"If Jane has three oranges, and john has four, then what is..."

"If Spiderman catches five criminals, and superman catches six, then what is..."

If questions are pure notation, then the changes would be simpler.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:28 PM on June 19, 2005

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