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Who owns your online course material? Think Again.


March 29, 2017 by admin

Intellectual PropertyAs online courses mature, things are starting to emerge that just didn’t appear important or relevant at the outset. For instance, who owns the materials you create for your online course? This article from Time magazine speaks to the frustration of professors who create materials for MOOCs who abruptly find out that they do not maintain intellectual property rights for their course materials.


Intellectual Property Rights

Today there is growing concern about intellectual property rights for online course material, which may range from syllabi to videos. The question is: who owns the content of your course? Furthermore, should you leave the university, would the university retain the right to continue to offer the course with your content without compensating you, and do you have the right to use that material at some other university or in some other commercial context? This emerging dilemma represents a chink in the proverbial institutional armor when it comes to who owns the content of online courses, and the answer isn’t particularly clear.

The AAUP has urged faculty to protect their rights when it comes to intellectual property ownership. Faculty may express one way of thinking about this: “I may work here (university), but my work is my own.” Of course an institution’s perspective may be 180 degrees in the other direction: “because you work here (university), we own or share in ownership of the material you create.”

Shared Identity

The chink in the armor that I refer to is, I think, based to some degree on the lack of shared identity. That lack of shared identity is embedded in that imagined quote above that only tangentially connects me, a faculty member, to the organization for which I work. My true allegiance is to my profession (field of study) and myself.

It’s not unusual in organizational life that people don’t start off with a shared identity, so there is no reason to believe that institutions of higher learning would garner such connectivity. The potential tensions are inherent in the way institutions of higher learning have historically been organized, even though the institution represents the greater whole, if you will. In other words, just because the institution is the larger force, doesn’t mean it is the greater force. Regardless, we do need to determine to whom the intellectual property belongs.

Online Course Materials are Marketable

We live in a golden age of entrepreneurial growth, in which many key inventions and technologies come out of universities. And, it is understandable that under some circumstances the university may have a right to share, for example, in the ownership of a patent. But at this point, even that is not clear. We have only just begun to think of our online course materials in this manner: a packageable product that can be sold on the open market.

One way to look at course content is like a natural resource; oil for example. It’s going to run out one day. In the case of course content, it is going to lose its freshness and perhaps its relevance as things change. So, for both sides of this equation—institution and faculty—there are implications based on the long-term value of course content. To give this a label, we can call it technological obsolescence. Assuming we are placing a monetary value on that intellectual property, how would it be treated as a depleting resource? And, in that what would be its likely shelf life?

A Negotiated Solution

On the one hand we have the institution that wants to set the rules regarding ownership of intellectual property, but this may be at odds with faculty who may form a pressure group to represent their interests in this matter. It seems to me there has to be an authorizing environment that might be represented by a hybrid group of individuals that would come up with a reasonable plan. But such a plan may not be as simplistic as this idea may at first seem, as the value of course content in one school within the university may not have the same value as that in another. Specifically, business professors may feel their intellectual property rights embedded in their course content may be more marketable outside the university then do instructors in the Humanities, to use just one example.

So how do we get that policy right? As the implication extends from the university, perhaps to other universities or other independent platforms, for example, what is called for is a team representing various stakeholders in this matter. While this process of negotiation may start off in an ad hoc manner, as parties gather information, eventually a formal set of rules will have to be negotiated, promulgated, vetted by the legal team, and applied across the university. There will clearly be great differences based on the size and complexity of various colleges and universities. And, if there is a long-standing policy regarding ownership of intellectual property, it’s probably time to revisit that policy in order to update it to be consistent with online education practices.

Faculty Need Representation

Faculty may too easily give up their rights to intellectual property, simply because they do not have a full understanding of the nature of the issue and its relevance to them. I can hear the echo inside my own head saying that my course content isn’t worth much, so I don’t feel like I have much skin in the game. But who knows, as online education moves forward and we learn how to better package materials that are created utilizing more and better technologies, perhaps my materials will be worth something. Faculty need to become a critical mass in this process.

This is an issue that takes the top of the governing body of the university to implement – the president. It takes a great leader to recognize what natural resources—online course content—exists as intellectual property on campus. And through partnership and negotiated stances, the university as a whole may reap fair returns, and the process may go along way in building a shared identity.

-Neil Alperstein



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