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It's time to watermark material on eClass

It's time to watermark material on eClass

One of my teaching assistants uploaded my instructional material to Course Hero without my permission. It didn't take me long to figure out who it was. I only had a handful of TAs and the TA used their university user ID as their Course Hero login. When I confronted the TA about it, the TA admitted to it. I reached out to university management, our legal department, and our university's copyright office to find out

  1. what could be done with respect to this specific teaching assistant, and
  2. could we set up structures to discourage blatant intellectual property theft by both teaching assistants and regular students

The answer every time? No, we won't do anything.

And, I kind of get that. When the model for learning is based on a corporate and consumer view of the world, we become afraid of our customers.

Apple's Example To Follow

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If our students are customers, then let's deal with IP theft the way that industry does.

It's clear that we need to take a page out of Apple's playbook. Apple has found a balance between a free-for-all and locking down their content in a manner that is inconvenient and inaccessible. Apple's solution? Watermarking content.

It's easy to forget now that up until the late 2000s, the music industry did everything it could to lock up digital music to prevent piracy. Apple went along in order to grow its portion of the music and entertainment business. But by 2009 Apple realized that the locks it was putting on content were holding it back. And it also realized that doing nothing to protect its IP and the IP of the artists selling music through its store was not acceptable. So Apple removed the "DRM" handcuffs on music sold through its store and added subtle tags in the files which could identify the purchaser of the music if ever that file appeared on a pirate website. This is known as a digital watermark.

Overview of Watermarks & Best Practices

A watermark is a little piece of information that gets added to a digital file, like a PDF document or an MP3 music file. It can be visible, like the example below, in the margins of the PDF, or it can be embedded deeper within the file, for example in the "meta data" of the file. It can include information about the time and date of the download and direct or masked identifiers about the user who did the downloading.

There are best practices for watermarking that should be followed when setting up a watermarking system. I'm no expert, but it seems clear that the watermark should:

  • be visible but also unobtrusive (like in the margins)
  • possibly be buried in an invisible part of the document
  • be difficult / inconvenient to remove
  • contain sufficient information to be able to identify the original downloader

But, again, there is 20+ years of experience in industry and academia for watermarking things like PDFs. We just have to adopt existing technologies and implement best practices.

Of course there will be resistance from management to my suggestion. That's just how things work. It's predictable. Management will throw up a bunch of red herrings and might even try to set up some "task force" or "working group" to study the issue and come up with a recommendation that no one will read, hoping that this will blow over and that everyone will go back to just accepting the massive amount of academic misconduct going on, day in and day out, as students continue to feed Course Hero and the AI chatbots.

No working group is necessary. We already have watermarking going on at the University. It happens every day in our Library.

Current Practice at York University

We already see watermarks in PDFs all the time in a university context. Our Library includes them in PDF downloads. Many journal publishers include them, too. Here is a real, contemporary example of a PDF that I downloaded from York University's Library:

watermark on the bookMoon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice.  The watermark shows a user ID, the time and date of download and the host institution (York University)
Watermark generated on a PDF that I downloaded from York University. The watermark shows the title of the work, the author, some identifying information of the user who did the download and the user's institution, York University.

The watermark is clear. It's unobtrusive. I can read the file in any regular PDF reader on my computer, tablet or phone. No passwords necessary. No special applications. It just works. It serves as a reminder to me that I need to respect the intellectual property of the author and that if I don't then there's a possibility that I'll get caught and could be faced with consequences. I could try to remove the watermark, but, really, I have better things to do with my time. Just like with auto theft, IP theft is often a crime of opportunity and convenience. If it takes effort or time, the student is likely to just simply respect the IP and move on to other useful or convenient things.

Sure, we nag students, half-heartedly, about intellectual property and academic misconduct, but, clearly, after decades of nagging, we would have seen a drop in piracy rates if it worked, right? Wrong. Sites like Course Hero have a business model that relies on students tuning out the nagging.

So, the status quo is one of hoping that students won't pirate when we give them non-watermarked material in our classes. The hope is misplaced. The preponderance of evidence shows that trusting students to respect the IP of content creators when there is little possibility of a negative consequence is just not realistic. Under the current conditions we can guarantee that IP will continue to be stolen and uploaded to sites like Chegg and Course Hero.

What does the University need to do?

While we allow watermarks to be added to documents downloaded from our Library, we don't do it for our Learning Management System (LMS), eClass.

But we could.


The LMS already tracks student interaction with the servers. It records who they are and when they upload or download material. Our LMS allows instructors to generate very detailed information about student behaviour and their interactions with the LMS. What's missing, right now, is the actual tagging of the documents with some of that information.

We need our IT administrators to add watermarking plugins to our learning management system. At York University, our main LMS is the eClass system. It's based on Moodle and there are at least three watermarking tools available right now:


There may be others. Let's install one or two of these in the eClass "sand box" test environment to allow instructors to "kick the tires" over the Summer of 2023.

In addition to letting regular instructors try this out, we need to encourage the Computer Security faculty and the Librarians in our university to try out the watermarking system. It would be mind-blowing if we leveraged our incredible internal expertise on something like this. If the results are super positive, then roll it out into the production LMS in September. If there are any moderate or serious issues identified, then leave it in the test environment for the 2023-24 academic year and into the Summer of 2024 so that further evaluation can be carried out and outstanding issues resolved.


The piracy of instructional material at our universities is a real problem. It's clear that dealing with this after-the-fact is not working. It often takes months and hours of labour to deal with a single academic misconduct -- often with no meaningful outcome. This is not an efficient use of our money.

At a time where we are constantly told that the University is in a financial crisis, pumping money into reactive academic misconduct systems that are hamstrung by lack of data, it is clear that we need to be smarter with our resources. Watermarking is a proactive process that will

  • disincentivize students from pirating course material, and
  • allow the academic misconduct processes to resolve IP theft cases more quickly and objectively

Watermarking technologies to reduce piracy exist and are widely used in the music industry but also in our university library system. They are unobtrusive and effective. They aren't punitive and their very presence aids in the educational mission of our institution. Just as important, they are available, today, for our LMS, eClass. It's time to implement them.

Watermarks on eClass downloads are doable, practical and useful.

Let's just get it done.

a pen

James Andrew Smith is a Professional Engineer and Associate Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department of York University's Lassonde School, with degrees in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Alberta and McGill University.  Previously a program director in biomedical engineering, his research background spans robotics, locomotion, human birth and engineering education. While on sabbatical in 2018-19 with his wife and kids he lived in Strasbourg, France and he taught at the INSA Strasbourg and Hochschule Karlsruhe and wrote about his personal and professional perspectives.  James is a proponent of using social media to advocate for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion as well as evidence-based applications of research in the public sphere. You can find him on Twitter. Originally from Qu├ębec City, he now lives in Toronto, Canada.