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Courses Are Not Corporations

Private ownership of a course conflicts with the liberal arts tradition

By The Crimson Editorial Board

Having previously faced criticism for its corporate culture, ever-expanding campus presence, and preferential treatment by the Harvard Library system, CS50 is now under scrutiny for trademarks that its instructor, David J. Malan ’99, filed personally. In 2011 and 2012, Malan submitted various trademark applications for his signature phrase “THIS IS CS50” and “CS50”—which were abandoned by Malan after Harvard filed to extend the opposition period—and created two limited liability companies associated with CS50. These details suggest that Malan may have aspired to create a CS50 franchise, according to Rebecca L. Tushnet ’95, a trademark expert at Georgetown Law School. Malan did not respond to requests for comment from The Crimson’s news writers about this possibility.

Aspirations of franchising a course run counter to a professor's duty as an instructor of a Harvard course. That position necessitates a vested interest in the education of Harvard undergraduates who enthusiastically enroll in the course rather than a commitment to the growth of a business and the creation of a trademark.

These actions also attest to the carte blanche Malan seemingly enjoys over CS50. Admittedly, Malan has invigorated CS50 and made it one of Harvard’s most popular courses. This success, however, does not justify Malan’s possessiveness over the course. While we are glad that he has consulted Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith in regards to trademark, we are concerned by the fact that he filed them personally to begin with. He, like any other course instructor, is working in that capacity as an employee of Harvard. Regardless of performance and innovation, no professor’s compensation should involve any special entitlement to the course itself, and therefore, no professor should be able to privatize, put to his own ends, or trademark a course. This practice directly conflicts with the ideals of a liberal arts education.

This point, however, does not imply that Harvard employees should purely serve Harvard and disregard their private ends. For instance, University President Drew G. Faust is on the Board of Directors of Staples and psychology professor Daniel T. Gilbert has appeared in Prudential Financial commercials. But there is a key difference between these actions and Malan’s: The activities do not constitute an attempt to commercialize a Harvard class. They are well within the bounds of private action.

In contrast, Malan’s attempts to trademark CS50 intermingle his obligation to his students as a professor and his own goals for the course’s expansion. The secretive nature of his trademark applications is of particular concern to us: Malan’s second LLC, 50 LLC, is registered under a private address in Boston rather than his official address on Harvard’s campus, suggesting a degree of secrecy furthered by the fact that Harvard filed to extend the opposition period to his trademark applications shortly before the deadline.

CS50’s expansion to Yale last year seemed like an unprecedented triumph for the spirit of collaboration that a liberal arts philosophy promotes. The recent revelation of Malan’s attempt to trademark the course, however, suggests a motivation beyond academic exploration fueling CS50’s rise. The desire to franchise a Harvard class conflicts with Harvard’s central liberal mission, which trumps the value of any one course—even that of CS50. After all, this is not CS50. This is Harvard.

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