MOOCs Spur New Intellectual Property Battles

The rise of MOOCs is leading to heated discussions over whether universities or instructors will own the intellectual property of these online courses. In contrast to policies regarding scholarly monographs, universities are making a strong push to retain ownership of MOOC content, something that Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, believes could have negative implications for faculty. He argues, as quoted in a recent Chronicle article, that with full, unrestricted ownership, universities will be able to modify courses without the consent of the creator, infringing upon the academic freedom of professors. He goes further in his warning:

“This is the first step in a broader assertion of ownership over a wide range of intellectual property. If we lose the battle over intellectual property, it’s over. Being a professor will no longer be a professional career or a professional identity.”

Because of the relatively high cost involved in creating MOOCs–capital that is currently provided by universities –it is understandable that they would want to maintain ownership of the IP in order to recoup the investment (despite their supposed ‘open’ nature). And given that much of the promise of MOOCs are that they allow educational content to be reused and remixed by others in a variety of ways, fears over course modification appear exaggerated. However, universities should certainly provide faculty certain guarantees about how their content will be used, particularly regarding licensing or other forms of sale. Universities may eventually consider providing different kinds of legal agreements to accommodate different faculty requirements. At the very least, all MOOC-related policies should be transparent to all parties involved.


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