Intellectual property concerns with distance learning

The development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has led to questions about control of intellectual property. Instructional materials have become freely available on the web and are easily accessible by the general public, ownership rights have become more disputable than even before.

MOOCs are large-scale, free and publicly available courses, increasingly popular in higher education are used at Coursera, Udacity, edX and Class2Go launched in the past 18 months have generated a great deal of interest in the press and have set out a possible path for providing education at a low cost for millions around the world.

John Mitchell, Vice Provost for Online Learning, Stanford says that course material produced by the faculty, including MOOC material, belongs to Stanford University. “With our terms of service, we are not transferring ownership to [MOOC platforms], we are just letting them show the material on our website. Stanford will protect faculty if there is any problem with Stanford online courses.Stanford has University’s agreement with Coursera, that allows the company to deliver the course, but not to own it.”

Amin Saberi, Associate Professor, Management Science and Engineering Department and the developer of (another MOOC platform), argues that standards need to be developed to a higher degree. “We need more developmental standards, policies in terms of control and ownership, [and] responsible online practice within the University,” he said.

Plagiarism is a another potential intellectual property issue that has to be considered. Mitchell emphasizes: “If someone else wants to read some of my ideas or the outline of my course, that’s fine with me. But I don’t want them to copy it and claim it as their own work. I think that whenever there is material on the web, you have this issue of plagiarism. We are interested in making sure that people get appropriate credit, and that things are not stolen or not credited.

Lauren Schoenthaler, Senior University Counsel, says that copyright infringement could become a serious issue in the use of third-party materials in MOOCs. Currently faculty members enjoy a copyright exception on materials that they show in on-campus classes, because they are using them for educational purposes. She says: “The face-to-face teaching exception allows faculty to show cartoons, photographs or graphs within an on-campus classroom setting. But that exception does not apply to unmediated, no-credit MOOCs that are open to the public. The creators and professors of MOOCs rely on fair use, as a basis to use materials, that faculty should be cognizant of the nuances of the fair use of content, such as photographs, in certain situations. There are two examples where faculty could legitimately use copy righted content in online courses:

“First, [if] the image shown is being directly criticized, for example, in a photography course, a photo is being shown to illustrate the problems with over-exposing film. The image is being used in a transformative way; that is, the purpose for use in the course is completely different than its original purpose.”

“In a course about eBay to illustrate a web design technique; that is, the transformative purpose is to illustrate a web design principle, completely different from eBay’s intended purpose of hosting an online auction,”
she points out.

The faculty can use limited portions of copyrighted materials that directly relate to the educational goal. “In particular, limited images that demonstrate or illustrate the educational concept at issue could be found to be fair use when used sparingly and appropriately,” she continues. “For example, a plant cell dividing in a biology course would like qualify as fair use.”

Her recommendation is that faculty use public domain media rather than its copyrighted counterpart. “I often advise MOOC creators to avoid copyright concerns by relying on the many websites that offer either public domain or freely licensed images,” Schoenthaler says.

Being optimistic that these legal concerns will be a hindrance to the advancement of online education she mentions that: “Putting together slides for MOOCs definitely requires more intentionality around the sourcing of images compared to standard in-class presentations. In the end though, copyright concerns are definitely surmountable and should never present a barrier.”

Mitchell is with the same opinion as Schoenthaler. “I think that that the legal issues should be manageable. If we have good ideas and material that we think is useful for our students or we want to make available publicly, there are ways to do that that use the law to protect us and allow us to do the things that we want to do.”

More about intellectual property on the web:
Intellectual Property Rights in the Web 2 World