Udemy’s Piracy Problem

Udemy’s Piracy Problem

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Marketplaces bring people together to buy, sell and share a diverse array of ideas, services and products. But it only takes a few punks to ruin the party.

For Udemy, an online marketplace for instructional courses, Thanksgiving weekend must have felt a bit awkward after the company made headlines for hosting—and selling—pirated content.

On Nov. 26, web security specialist Troy Hunt found out via a Tweet that his “Ethical Hacking” course, created for Pluralsight, was pirated and sold on Udemy. (The videos were edited so that neither his name nor Pluralsight were credited.) A day later, Tekpub co-founder Rob Conery discovered he had also been a victim. They’re not alone: Conery’s post and subsequent media coverage have surfaced complaints by many others who found their content unwittingly sold on Udemy.

Piracy is a well-known scourge for any creator of digital assets, affecting individual instructors and established education companies alike. Many online courses offered by Lynda.com and Udacity are ripped and available for download on Torrent sites. Pirated content often makes its way to YouTube—which sometimes displays ads on top of them.

But what particularly irked Conery was Udemy’s hands-off approach to redressing the issue. He blasted the company for “crowd-sourcing copyright compliance” after a feeble response from the company appeared to punt the responsibility to users (who, he also noted, have to log in to report abuse.)

Even more damning for a company that’s raised $113 million in venture capital is Conery’s charge that Udemy is “profiting from piracy.” His point: since the company can take up to a 75 percent cut of course revenues, Udemy is directly making money from users who sell pirated content.

Udemy’s initial response to Hunt’s case, first reported by TheNextWeb, seemed a tad underwhelming: “We take intellectual property rights seriously and act quickly to remove content when we are notified of any potential copyright infringement.” Hunt’s course was removed a little over 15 hours after the company received a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice.

Dennis Yang, Udemy’s CEO, later acknowledged on the company’s blog that “we, like other platforms, face bad actors that seek to profit by stealing intellectual property and reposting it as their own.” He added that no money was exchanged in the case of Hunt’s course “as the fraudulent instructor had created coupon codes to allow students free access to the course.”

Yang suggested the company will work to allow non-Udemy users to flag courses for possible abuse as part of an overall review of copyright processes. He also offered a glimpse into the frequency of copyright complaints:

On average, over 15,000 courses are uploaded to Udemy per year. So far in 2015, we have received 125 DMCA notifications as well as 45 “Hey, this looks weird maybe you should look into this,” notifications.

Udemy currently claims more than eight million students and 18,000 instructors across the world—although that latter number will now be disputed. Other issues have been raised with the company’s business and revenue share model.

A company representative added that Udemy offers “full refunds for all students of courses removed due to violation of Udemy’s copyright terms.” But this measure may give little reprieve to instructors and content creators who have already lost out on revenue opportunity. The income that they generate can be substantial—a fact that the company should know quite well.

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