Friday 18 January 2013

Times are Tough for Universities: What is the Future of University Online Education and IP

The University of California (UC) system has invested millions of dollars in marketing the offering of some of its courses online.  The courses are not only offered to current UC students, but also are offered to non-UC students.  The courses are not offered to non-UC students for free and the hope, in a relatively difficult financial time for most universities, is that the lure of UC classes will lead to extra revenue for the UC system.  Unfortunately, after spending 4 million dollars on marketing, only one student signed up for an online course who is not a current UC student.  That’s right—one student.  The San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee both discuss the issue.  Is the future a grim one for online education--at least at most universities? 

Again, times are tough for universities and looking for outside revenue by offering courses to people who aren’t current students for a fee is one way to make money.   So, don’t expect universities to stop trying and they probably shouldn’t because making education available for more is not such a bad thing.  There is a question of how aggressive university administrators (or others) are going to get in pursuing online education—and IP has a part to play.  Generally speaking, in the United States, professors will own the copyright in their teaching materials or other published materials, usually so-called traditional scholarly works—because of university policy (but, see below).  They also likely won’t have an obligation to share royalties with the university.  However, with the advent of online education, administrators may decide they want the university to own the copyright in any materials created for use in the online course (and that course may be subsequently offered in the future without that professor but using that professor’s materials).  The administrator may also start scratching his or her head and wondering well, why don’t we just own any textbooks or other books produced by the academic--well, we should!  Yikes!  That would be a very unpopular decision for an administrator to make—at least with faculty.  What do you think?  Should faculty own the copyright in their course materials and other published materials, including traditional scholarly works?  What about academic freedom?  Should faculty own all of the materials they created for online courses?  For an excellent discussion of copyright ownership and online education, see Professor Roberta Kwall’s article. 

In a 2006 study concerning university policies and copyright ownership in the United States, the authors of the study found:

[M]ost Universities are writing intellectual property rights policies to delineate the rights of faculty to their works.  Although 93% of these policies designated that professors should have control of their traditional scholarly works; 71% of these universities specifically listed exemptions to this policy. Most universities (95%) claimed some faculty works, especially if the works required substantial use of university resources (83%). On a positive note when the university did claim rights to the intellectual property of a faculty member, 95% offer to share a percentage of the royalties.

Our research also revealed some areas of concern. Although half of the universities gave control of syllabi, tests and notes to faculty, only 31% of these institutions also included materials posted to the web and 36% of the universities claimed ownership of courseware and distance learning materials. A substantial majority of universities claim the intellectual property rights for materials that faculty are given specific assignments to produce (76%), are specifically hired to produce (76%), or are commissioned to produce (67%). Another area of concern is the increase in the number of universities that make some claims in their policies to works developed within the scope of employment or according to the Copyright Law for works-for-hire or (currently 57%).

Does anyone know of a more recent study of university policies concerning copyrighted materials in the United States?  Are there similar studies of policies in other countries?  As a side note, for a simple and helpful guide for intellectual property issues (United States) for professors offering online courses, see UC Irvine’s website. 

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