Wednesday, May 21, 2008

copyright and course materials

I've been reading up on a case out of the University of Florida where Michael P. Moulton, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation, is part of a legal battle against Einstein’s Notes, a company that sells students study kits and lecture notes.

While his publisher, Faulkner Press, brought the suit, one of the more interesting issues to me what Moulton's claim of copyright on his lectures and that any notes taken by students is an infringement, but an allowable fair use infringement as long as the notes aren't sold. Moulton and Faulkner Press have a strong case for infringement when it comes to material from his published textbook that he uses in teaching. Mouton's claims that his printed lecture study guides are copyrighted absolutely has merit. But I have often heard that faculty cannot claim copyright on their teaching material -- lectures, syllabi -- because those are work-for-hire products that they create as part of their employment at a university, and that the university either holds copyright or at least holds an interest in the copyright. There's also the issue that, if not in a fixed form, like a written lecture, a lecture can be protected but not necessarily copyrighted. The University of Florida cleared his copyright registration, so this has obviously been vetted by their general counsel's office.

I once worked on a project where a dean forbade faculty from making syllabi on course sites publicly accessible because they were considered a work-for-hire. It seems that university policies have very much shifted in the years since I last worked with online course issues.

Site on the suit

Chronicle of Higher Ed Interview

Wired article

ars technica post


Peter Murray said...

Your post says: "Moulton's claim of copyright on ... any notes taken by students is an infringement..." I don't think the suit is claiming copyright over notes taken by students. It does seem to be claiming that "pen-to-paper" lecture notes created by Moulton do fall under copyright. Other than that, I found the post and the related materials to be a fascinating read...

Leslie Johnston said...

In the Wired article, there's this from the attorney representing the plaintiffs:

But if a professor's lectures are copyrighted, aren't students already infringing just by taking the notes in the first place?

Yes, Sullivan answers, student notes do infringe, but they are protected infringement.

"That's absolutely fair use," Sullivan said.

Peter Murray said...

Thanks, Leslie -- I missed that in the Wired article. On the other hand, I did look through the copy of the lawsuit filed in Florida and it didn't seem to make reference to it.

Personally, I think the plaintiff's arguments in this case are bogus: the professor can't hold copyright to the student's notes because the student created them. The ideas and concepts were transferred from the lecturer to the student in the process of taking the course. Ideas and concepts cannot be copyrighted. The notes are the manifestation of the student's understanding of the ideas and concepts.

Tyson said...

This is an interesting case involving the dynamics of the classroom. I think the key factor is the format of the notes. Did the defendant listen to the professor’s lecture and take his own notes based off of the concepts taught in the lecture, or did he simply copy the professors PowerPoint slide notes like 90% of students out there. Does anyone know?