Deciphering Intellectual Property in the Age of MOOCs

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How will low-cost online courses address concerns over copyright infringement?

The latest salvo in the ever growing uncertainty regarding Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) expansion has been raised in the form of questions regarding intellectual property rights of instructors licensing their courses to the providers. Since the emergence of the phenomenon, it seemed that most instructors agreed to license their material in exchange for enhanced recognition. A major question regarding this wondered how long would they do this without getting paid for it? How long would the novelty last?

After the University of Santa Cruz signed on to an agreement with a MOOC provider to allow its instructors engage with the service to supply course material, the faculty union raised some serious concerns in the form of a letter addressed to the school administration. Their questions hearken back to issues that were asked at the outset of the MOOC phenomenon, namely who own the rights to course material once said material is licensed to a MOOC provider? While not every contract written up between a university and a MOOC company is essentially the same, it may be beneficial to examine the contract released that details the arrangement between Coursera and the University of Michigan. This contract makes it clear that all intellectual property rights remain with the applicable instructor and university. Further, courses and intellectual property offered by a MOOC company are done under license.

The concerns expressed by the faculty association of UC Santa Cruz seem to mainly stress the importance of precedent when faced with decisions regarding the rights to faculty course materials. While the concerns are certainly valid, it does not appear that any dangerous precedents are being set so far. In fact, it would appear the most of the controversy is engendered by the high-profile nature of the phenomenon. After all, many professors have already been offering lectures via YouTube and iTunes University with few negative repercussions.