As universities across China increasingly go digital, creating a wealth of online resources that offer almost endless learning opportunities, experts have warned they could be guilty of massive breaches of copyright.
With the rapid development of internet technology, teachers have swapped chalkboards for dynamic multimedia presentations, while students today are more likely to do all their research and writing on an iPad, rather than using a library.
Yet the ways in which these materials are being shared - through so-called e-campuses and digital libraries - could be depriving copyright holders of income, according to copyright experts at a recent forum in Beijing ahead of World Intellectual Property Day, which fell on Wednesday.
The law states that authors own the rights to any dissertation or thesis, except in sensitive fields such as the military. However, master's and doctoral students at Chinese universities are asked to sign agreements that allow the school to store and share their work, and sometimes even sell it to commercial online platforms, experts say.
"Universities are signing deals and claiming to own the copyrights to essays and dissertations by thousands of students every year," said Zhang Hongbo, secretary-general of China Written Works Copyright Society, which organized the forum.
"Some 'authorize' the use of these resources without the copyrights holders' permission, which is a severe infringement of those rights," he said. "How can these students hope to collect any potential royalties?"
Research papers by students can be hot properties, especially if they contain groundbreaking findings. Likewise, innovative lesson plans and lectures, which are also freely shared on e-campuses, could generate income for the tutors who devise them.
Third-party websites that collect and share this content sometimes illegally claim copyright and can charge large sums to subscribers to view it, opening them up to lawsuits, Zhang said.
Even posting a report without permission on WeChat in the name of "academic sharing" is a copyright infringement, he added.
Spending by campus libraries on digital content, such as teaching resources, audio visual materials and subscriptions to online academic journals, has risen by about 30 percent in the past decade, up from an average of 780,000 yuan (3,000) in 2006 to 2.51 million yuan in 2015, according to the Ministry of Education.
Zhang Qiwei, director of Beijing Normal University's campus library, said 60 percent of its spending is on digital resources. The library purchases online services from commercial enterprises and has built an internal digital content network, he said, adding that both provide challenges for copyright protection.
"If enterprises share unauthorized content, the libraries are violating copyright," he said, adding that some students and tutors also abuse the internal network by downloading large amounts of material and then sharing it without permission.
Experts at the forum said universities could alleviate the problem by offering courses in intellectual property protection to raise awareness among students and also put in place regulations to safeguard digital resources.
According to Zhang Qiwei, more than half of China's top universities have introduced copyright regulations on the use of digital resources at libraries, including Sichuan University in Chengdu, which forbids users of its internal network from excessive downloads and sharing content with nonregistered users.
"Students are among those who have benefited most from digitalization and the growth of internet technology," said Chen Hongbing, head of the World Intellectual Property Organization's China office. "Universities now have an opportunity to raise awareness of IP protection among the next generation."