The University of Toronto and three of its professors have launched a lawsuit against a tutoring business alleging it routinely copies, without authorization, lecture slides, course syllabuses, tests and exams and sells them in “coursepacks” to post-secondary students on its website in violation of Canada’s Copyright Act.
The suit against Easy Group Inc. and related companies, operating variously as Easy EDU, Easy Education, Easy 4.0, and ez4edu, also cites the serious consequences faced by students who are sanctioned for receiving unauthorized academic assistance from the company.
Under U of T’s intellectual property policy, faculty members own the copyright in their classroom materials.
“Our faculty spend hours creating materials for their courses that are often based on their leading-edge research,” said Heather Boon, U of T’s vice-provost, faculty and academic life. “These materials are created for our students and for use in the faculty members’ classrooms.
“We will not permit private companies to make money from the unauthorized sale of our professors’ copyrighted materials. We are also concerned that this company creates a perception that the university and the professors have authorized the use of these materials and partnered with this for-profit tutoring service. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Easy EDU, purportedly founded in 2014 by Yuwei (Jacky) Zhang, claims to be one of North America’s largest education companies. It has offices across Canada as well as in China.
The lawsuit cites instances of copyright infringement by Easy EDU involving three U of T professors, who are acting as plaintiffs together with the university in the lawsuit: Robert Gazzale, an associate professor, teaching stream, of economics; Lisa Kramer, a professor of finance; and Ai Taniguchi, an assistant professor, teaching stream, of linguistics. The company’s online store of tutoring materials indicates that coursepacks from many other U of T courses are also being sold by the company.
The university’s lawsuit is seeking monetary damages, the return of the copyrighted materials and an injunction to stop any further copyright infringement. U of T has also asked for a full accounting and disgorgement of all revenues earned directly or indirectly from the sale of all products that contain university material, as well as an award of punitive and exemplary damages. U of T has committed to use any funds obtained from the lawsuit for student academic supports.
According to the company’s website, it offers more than 1,000 Canadian university course offerings every term and has served more than 210,000 students at universities across Canada. “Weekly course packages” are priced as high as $1,449.
The website states that Easy EDU offers its services to students at all three U of T campuses, as well as at the University of Waterloo, York University, McGill University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta and other higher education institutions across Canada.
The statement of claim alleges the company also infringed the professors’ moral rights by creating the impression within the educational community, and among students who have purchased Easy EDU’s services, that the professors and the university have endorsed the company to use their work.
“I have devoted years to preparing materials for my students. To have a company profit from the unauthorized use of my intellectual property is incredibly wrong. It is theft,” said Gazzale. “I am also saddened that tutoring companies are pushing the approach of trying to game the system, as opposed to trying to help students learn the material.”
Gazzale added that, during the pandemic, the economics department put extra effort into helping students who were facing challenges by offering extended online office hours and adjusting the hours of its free peer tutoring services to better serve students abroad.
U of T, meanwhile, provides a range of academic supports which students can access as part of their tuition, including 14 writing centres that offer one-on-one support, learning strategists, organized study groups, old exam banks, workshops and an academic success centre. International students also have access to additional workshops upon arrival and throughout the year.
The lawsuit alleges that Easy EDU also unfairly exploits students who, in good faith, pay significant fees for tutoring that can lead to life-altering consequences stemming from sanctions for academic misconduct. U of T alleges that in providing tutoring services, Easy EDU may in some cases be providing students with unauthorized academic assistance where it is not permitted, an offence under the university’s Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters. That can lead – and has led – to sanctions for academic misconduct and cheating, including suspensions. For international students, suspensions can lead to cancellation of their study permits and a forced return to their home country.
Assistant Professor Taniguchi, whose linguistics courses attract many international students, expressed disappointment that Easy EDU preys on students’ fears of not doing well in an unfamiliar setting and potentially disappointing their family.
“Easy EDU exploits that fear and leads students down the path of possible academic offences,” she said. “Students are much better off asking for help from their U of T professors or teaching assistants than paying for a tutoring service that is violating copyright law.”
Before launching the lawsuit, U of T met with a representative of Easy EDU in October 2020 to discuss issues of academic infringement and integrity. In December 2020, Easy EDU stated in an email to the university that it would review its materials and “ensure there is absolutely no copyright infringement.”
According to the statement of claim, however, Easy EDU continued to create and sell tutoring packages that infringed copyright. The university’s lawyers sent a letter to Easy EDU in April 2021 asking the company to stop its unlawful use of teaching materials. No response was received.
Easy EDU has 30 days to file a statement of defence.