• April 16, 2014

AAUP Sees MOOCs as Spawning New Threats to Professors' Intellectual Property

Colleges broadly threaten faculty members' copyrights and academic freedom in claiming ownership of the massive open online courses their instructors have developed, Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, argued here on Wednesday at the group's annual conference.

In the meeting's opening address, Mr. Nelson characterized the debate at colleges over who owns the rights to faculty members' MOOCs as part of a broader battle over intellectual property that's being waged on America's campuses. At stake, he said, is not just the ability of faculty members to profit from their own writings or inventions, but the future of their profession.

"If we lose the battle over intellectual property, it's over," Mr. Nelson warned. "Being a professor will no longer be a professional career or a professional identity," and faculty members will instead essentially find themselves working in "a service industry," he said.

The AAUP plans this year to undertake a campaign to urge professors to get protections of their intellectual-property rights included in their contracts and faculty handbooks, Mr. Nelson said. As part of that effort, the group plans to create a Web site with resources dealing with intellectual property and to devise letters about its concerns tailored for specific academic disciplines.

It also plans to publish a book, with boilerplate language for contracts and faculty handbooks, titled Recommended Principles to Guide University-Industry Relationships, said Mr. Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A Defense of Professorial Copyright

The AAUP has long been concerned with faculty members' right to own patents for whatever they have invented. It has, for example, weighed in on past court battles and legislative debates over professors' patents, and the Recommended Principles book will be based heavily on a draft report it published a year ago.

The group's effort to mount a strong defense of professorial copyright, however, is new. In explaining his concern, Mr. Nelson said colleges previously often sought to assert control over patents but generally left faculty members' ownership of their courses and other writings alone.

With the emergence of MOOCs, however, colleges have begun asserting ownership of the courses their faculty members develop, raising the question of what is keeping such institutions from claiming ownership of other scholarly products covered by copyright, such as books.

"There is no need for the university to own the online course you create," Mr. Nelson said, because a contract giving a college the right to use the course should suffice. In claiming ownership of a course, Mr. Nelson said, a higher-education institution asserts the right to update or revise the course as it sees fit, threatening the academic freedom of the course's creator.

He described colleges' efforts to claim ownership of MOOCs and other courses as "the first step in a broader assertion of ownership over a wide range of intellectual property," and predicted that faculty members' ownership of copyright for their works is "going to be under increasing assault."

The draft report on university-industry relationships that the AAUP released last year drew criticism from groups such as the Association of American Universities and the Association of University Technology Managers, which argued that the AAUP was ignoring the ownership stake that higher-education institutions derive from financially supporting scholars' work.

The AAUP's new efforts are likely to meet similar objections, but Mr. Nelson said he sees the battles over faculty members' intellectual-property rights as likely to be fought on the state or campus level, where such policies are set.

The right of faculty members to own their intellectual property "is an issue serious enough to strike over if you are a collective-bargaining campus," Mr. Nelson said. Personally speaking, he said, he would be willing to sacrifice a salary increase to keep such ownership rights in his contract.

"Money is not what the battle is over," Mr. Nelson said. "It is over principle. It is over one's right to decide what happens to the things you create."

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