INF 312, on the Copyright of

There are several technology related policy and legal issues involved in an online course.
We’ll start with copyright. Here are a few of these subjects.
1. The copyright of the course contents generated by people working on the course
2. The copyright of the external materials used in the course
3. The copyright of the student work published online and student work contributed to the course

We’ll start with the copyright of INF 312.
It hasn’t really come been a problem, but there are certainly questions involved. Here’s a big one: how do we continue to use materials generated for the course when people come and go?

I’m going to create an “about” page summarizing a history of the INF 312 page, with everyone’s help, over the summer. To make a long story short, INF 312 is a (mainly) online course, Information in Cyberspace. It’s the product of several instructors, student assistants, and staff at the University of Texas at Austin. These instructors change from year to year and the contents of the course (the web pages) can change from day to day. We’re pretty successful with this updating, IMHO. We value staying current. With our topics, we can guarantee that our students will know if we’re not.

Our system of writing and updating works for several reasons, and these are the same reasons that copyright hasn’t been a problem. I don’t think any of us have huge egos, for one. We’re relatively easy going and we get along well. We admit we don’t know everything, we look for and accept criticism, and we let others update our work. We also recognize that this endeavor is a team effort in all areas. We value the sharing of information. All of us contribute to the development of these modules. While one person might be the “primary” writer, everyone participates in the module creation, reviews it, gives feedback, and can add to it. Module development is a constant cycle of writing-feedback-update-publish-feedback. And the modules wouldn’t happen at all without the things on the backend- the site design, the page design, etc.
All of these things may contain copyrightable elements.

Here are some of the issues.

1. Who owns the course contents?
Well, we own the educational materials that we write, as individuals. Luckily for us, that’s UT policy: faculty and students own the educational material that they generate, even in the course of their work. Now, there are also staff members in the form of undergraduate and graduate assistants who also contribute to the course. I’m less clear on the status of materials, educational and non-educational, that staff generates.

Of course, to further complicate matters, at least two instructors contribute to the course in some manner as both staff and faculty, and some instructors have contributed materials to the course as student assistants and later faculty.

This means that we have to pay attention to the copyrightable expression that we generate and in what capacity it is generated. We really haven’t bothered with that in the past. Ideally, it would be something we wouldn’t need to worry about too much. Is there a solution?

2. Who’s “We?”
Well, copyright is automatically assigned to the author of a work with certain exceptions (work for hire, etc.). On our pages we’ve taken to say © INF 312 [Year]. Of course, we don’t have a precise definition of what that means and I’m not entirely certain about the legal status of posting the mark in that manner without the explicit transfer of copyright. Did we explicitly intend to be joint owners when the works were created? Probably, but that means that we have copyright. Is “we” the individual instructors or an institution? Can “INF 312” be a copyright owner? Can we define “INF 312” in such a way that the term has meaning through time, and if so do we need to explicitly do so?

In some cases (the final modules) an individual claims copyright and can do what they want with it (use Creative Commons licenses, etc.). In the copyright final module, some of the content is jointly owned by me and different people I interview- I explicitly received permission to share the materials under a Creative Commons license so that we could use it now and in the future.

And the date is not entirely accurate in some cases, which I’ll address in a later post.

3. What’s the problem?
Here’s the thing- the materials we use in the course from semester to semester, from day to day, change. That means that someone has to go in there and change them. That sounds an awful lot like of a derivative work when people who weren’t the original authors make and publish these changes. ^_^ Now, we can argue that it is implied that by contributing to the course a person is accepting these terms, but there are still situations when “something” can come up. For example, last year some of the instructors were contacted by Harper-Collins. Publishing something in the physical world is a situation that probably wasn’t considered when the authors wrote the original materials (and some of those authors were no longer affiliated with the course and were not contacted).

If the course contents are jointly owned, would that mean that the derivative works in question are owned by the original joint owners, whomever or whatever they may be?

If we’re assigning copyright to INF 312, doesn’t that fix the problem? It might, but again- we probably need the explicit assignment of copyright, and some of the people who wrote the original work are no longer affiliated with the course. Luckily for us, they haven’t minded and aren’t likely to due to reasons discussed above.

4. What can we do?
Well, we probably all should sign a paper stating that the modular content that we develop, unless specifically indicated otherwise, has copyright assigned to INF 312, and define the course in a way that allows the School of Information to use the work in whatever manner they see fit. That way, if the course number or name changes “we” (the people still affiliated with the course) can keep on developing the course. We wouldn’t need to keep careful track of the materials generated that are owned by individuals (rather than the institution). We should also assign copying in the final modules in such a way that the original author gets credit but others can continue using the material in the future. Actually, we should probably keep track of EVERYONE who contributes to the course- not just for copyright reasons, but to let them be recognized and to show how many people affect what goes on.

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