Who Owns Course Materials: Courses & Copyright Conundrums

question mark

“Do I own my course materials? Does the university? Who owns my course materials?!”

I get questions about course materials ownership somewhat often, and more so now that we are preparing to teach in different modalities this fall. There’s part of me that’s always a little frustrated on behalf of the person asking because they shouldn’t have to ask—they should know that they own their course materials. But finding the policy language that clearly stipulates ownership isn’t easy, so I’m not surprised they don’t know. So, let’s break down how you own your course materials and what that means.

“Who owns my course materials?”

Short answer: You do!
Long answer: At Wake Forest, instructors own the course materials they create.

The University’s copyright policy stipulates that all “informational” works are owned by the creator, be they faculty, staff, or students. It’s generally understood that this covers our scholarship, but it’s later in the policy—in a somewhat ambiguous way—that it stipulates that course materials are also owned by their creator.

Let’s break down the pertinent parts of the policy…

Copyrighted works are divided into two types: device-like and informational. Here’s the definition:

“Inventions” are tangible or intangible inventions, discoveries or other innovations, whether or not patentable or reduced to practice. Inventions include “device-like” software or other “device-like” copyrightable material, that like a device, is intended and likely to result in the accomplishment of a task or in allowing the user to produce, manage, analyze, or manipulate a product, such as data text, a physical object, or more software. Device-like software or material acts as a tool or building block in the accomplishment of such a task or in the creation or management of such a product or result. Inventions do not include “informational” software or other “informational” copyrightable material, which may be interactive, to the extent it is intended to inform or educate the user. In the case of software or other copyrightable material that is both device-like and informational, appropriate distinctions will be made in accordance with the principles of this policy. [emphasis added]

Clear as mud, right? Basically informational works are the scholarly books, articles, lectures, paintings, musical scores, images, etc. that we create all the time. For students this includes the assignments they make in class, during club activities, or on their own. The vast majority of higher ed institutions have copyright policies that clearly stipulate ownership to such materials is held by the creator; Wake is no different.

Course materials, though, are another matter due to what’s known as Work Made for Hire. In WMFH situations, copyrighted works that are made in the course of one’s employment—say, a committee report—is the copyright of the employer, not the employee. Your words, your employer’s copyright. There must be policies that stipulate WMFH situations, and Wake’s policy has that. At some institutions, the WMFH policies claim full or joint ownership in course materials, from syllabi to lecture notes to activities. In such cases, the institution is claiming that because you are hired to teach and creating course materials is part of that assigned duty, course materials are WMFH. You’ve probably heard colleagues elsewhere gripe about this loss of intellectual control, and understandably so. 

Thankfully for us, Wake does NOT claim copyright to our course materials. Somewhat confusingly, though, it is within the WMFH section that course materials are addressed—when they are specifically *excluded* from WMFH with the broad phrase “other than the teaching of courses.” It’s even set within parentheses for emphasis.

Could this be better stated earlier in the policy? Yep. But now’s not time to quibble about it because now you know that YOU OWN YOUR COURSE MATERIALS! HUZZAH!

“OK, that’s it, right? I’m good to go.”

Short answer: Probably, yes.
Long answer: Probably, but let’s talk over a few things. 
  1. If your course materials include work made by others—images you found online, a graphic from an article, prior students’ coursework—you obviously don’t have ownership to those materials. In certain circumstances, you may even need to secure permission to use them, although there are allowances in copyright law that probably cover your use without needing permission, either through classroom exemptions (which incidentally are not the blanket permission people assume) or fair use. We can chat 1:1 about these in detail over…Zoom coffee, not Campus Grounds coffee. (Boo.)
  2. Just because students create works for your course, their coursework is not yours—they retain copyright ownership. If you want to use students’ coursework *in any way* you need to get their permission. This doesn’t have to be super formal, although there are situations where a written agreement would be wise, but you do need to ask them. I realize this is a bit counter to the point I just made about allowances covering use w/o permission, but there are additional, non-copyright considerations when you are sharing students’ works, so I’m telling you to get their permission.
  3. If you want to share your course materials with others, consider putting an open license on them so others will know how they can reuse, remix, redistribute, revise, and retain the materials you share. Creative Commons offers a suite of licenses that grant varying levels of permission while indicating that these are your copyrighted works. It’s super easy to walk through the CC license generator. And I’m always happy to chat CC licenses over…yeah, still over Zoom coffee, not Camino Bakery coffee (which btw is replacing the ZSR Starbucks. Yay local business!). Oh, and if you have others’ works in the course materials you want to share, you’ll definitely want to do a full fair use analysis before you share them. This checklist is a handy guide (if not legally binding) and, you guessed it, I’m happy to chat over Zoom…maybe with something other than coffee…

Final Thoughts

You own your course materials. You. That’s great and hopefully a relief if you were worried. Maybe someday we’ll have a clearer policy that is easy to find so others won’t have to wonder, but for now you can focus on fall with the assurance that you own your materials and can (mostly) do want you want. But if you still have questions, join me for a Course Materials & Copyright workshop, pop me an email, or schedule a Zoom meeting over some type of beverage!

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0). It was created by Molly Keener and last updated 29 July 2020.

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