The University of Toronto and three of its professors are suing a tutoring company they allege charges students for course materials created by the professors, flouting copyright law and putting students at risk of breaking academic integrity rules.
The university filed a statement of claim this week against Easy Group Inc., a company that offers tutoring help and sells course materials that target Mandarin-speaking students. Easy Group and related companies sell tutoring packages that include course outlines, digital slide presentations, lecture notes and assignments, according to the statement of claim. In some cases, the company also provides tests and evaluations devised by university faculty, along with instructions on how to answer them, the court filing says.
U of T alleges that Easy Group “systematically misappropriates university course materials for commercial gain.” It is seeking a number of things, including a declaration that its copyright was violated, a disgorgement of related profits or up to $20,000 in damages for each copyright violation, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in punitive and exemplary damages. The university said any proceeds will be used to fund student academic supports.
Easy Group has not yet filed a statement of defence. On Tuesday, an employee at a Toronto office said the company was reviewing the lawsuit and considering its response.
The company’s website advertises course packets for classes at a number of other universities, including the University of British Columbia, McMaster, McGill, Waterloo, York and Western. Easy Group is led by a former U of T student named Yuwei Zhang, according to the statement of claim.
“We’re moving to this measure because this has to stop,” said Heather Boon, a vice-provost at U of T, adding that students are often under the false impression the company is connected to the university because it is using course materials created by professors – although without their permission.
Easy Group’s practices also raise concerns about academic integrity, Prof. Boon said. “We’re really worried that this behaviour is leading our students into trouble.”
In a case cited in the statement of claim, a student who relied on Easy Group’s services was sanctioned by a university tribunal. The student received a final grade of zero in the course and was suspended from the school for five years, the statement of claim said. For an international student, such a penalty could jeopardize a study visa.
On its website, the company says it helps students overcome linguistic and cultural barriers, adapt more quickly to college life and succeed academically. The company says it employs more than 600 tutors, has served more than 200,000 students and offers tutoring in more than 1,000 courses across the country.
Some packages are priced as high as $1,449 and include sessions with a tutor as well as course materials available for download, according to the statement of claim.
Prof. Boon said hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students at the university are using these packages, which are offered for 380 different U of T courses. She said part of the appeal could be that the service is offered in Mandarin, but many of the resources they provide are already available through the university at no additional cost.
“We do have a wide range of supports for students for whom English is not their first language.” Prof. Boon said.
Attempts to address the situation with Easy Group outside a court process have not been successful, according to the university’s court filing.
Prof. Boon said she spoke to the company’s leadership in 2020. At the time, they said they were shocked to hear that tutors were using the professors’ material and that such a practice ran counter to company policy. They promised to dismiss the offending employees and rectify the situation, Prof. Boon said. But she’s seen no evidence of that since, she said.
Lisa Kramer, a professor of finance, is one of the professors whose course materials were allegedly copied improperly, according to the lawsuit, along with economist Robert Gazzale and linguist Ai Taniguchi.
Prof. Kramer said her understanding is that Easy Group charged students approximately $1,000 for materials related to her course. She heard this was happening, and in conjunction with university administration was able to review some of the materials, which she recognized as her own work, she said.
“It was kind of the last straw for me. I felt really disheartened,” Prof. Kramer said.
With a report from Xiao Xu