Online courses raise intellectual property concerns

Nov. 1, 2012, 12:37 a.m.

Although Stanford’s recent foray into online education has been met with cautious praise, faculty members have raised concerns surrounding intellectual property rights in the online space.

The advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has led to questions about control of intellectual property. Since instructional materials have become widely available on the web and are easily accessible by the general public, ownership rights have become even murkier than before.


MOOC Intellectual Property Ownership

MOOCs are large-scale, free and publicly available courses that have become increasingly popular in higher education. The concept’s breakthrough came in 2011, when Sebastian Thrun, lecturer in Stanford’s Computer Science Department, taught a MOOC on artificial intelligence for which 160,000 students signed up.

MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, edX and Class2Go have all launched in the past 18 months. They’ve generated a great deal of interest in the press and have set out a possible path for providing education at a low cost for millions around the world.

According to Vice Provost for Online Learning John Mitchell, course material produced by Stanford faculty, including MOOC material, belongs to Stanford University.

“With our terms of service, we are not transferring ownership to [MOOC platforms],” Mitchell said. “We are just letting them show the material on our website.”

He cited the University’s agreement with Coursera, which he said allows the company to deliver the course but not to own it.

However faculty members like Amin Saberi, associate professor in the Management Science and Engineering Department and the developer of Venture Lab, another MOOC platform, argue that standards may need to be developed to a higher degree.

“We need more…developmental standards, policies in terms of control and ownership, [and] responsible online practice within the University,” he said.

Mitchell was firm in expressing the University’s support for faculty.

“Stanford will protect faculty if there is any problem with Stanford online courses,” Mitchell said.

Another potential intellectual property issue Mitchell identified is plagiarism.

“If someone else wants to read some of my ideas or the outline of my course, that’s fine with me,” he said. “But I don’t want them to copy it and claim it as their own work. I think that whenever there is material on the web, you have this issue of plagiarism.”

Mitchell affirmed that this matter is indeed an issue that the university is taking seriously.

“We are interested in making sure that people get appropriate credit, and that things are not stolen or not credited,” he said.


Fair use and copyrighted content online

Lauren Schoenthaler, senior University counsel, acknowledged that copyright infringement could become a serious issue in the use of third-party materials in MOOCs. This is because currently faculty members enjoy a copyright exception on materials that they show in on-campus classes, because they are using them for educational purposes.

“The face-to-face teaching exception allows faculty to show cartoons, photographs or graphs within an on-campus classroom setting,” she said. “But that exception does not apply to unmediated, no-credit MOOCs that are open to the public.”

Although the creators and professors of MOOCs may rely on fair use as a basis to use materials, Schoenthaler suggests that faculty should be cognizant of the nuances of the fair use of content, such as photographs, in certain situations. She highlighted two examples where faculty could legitimately use copyrighted content in online courses.

“First, [if] the image shown is being directly criticized, for example, in a photography course, a photo is being shown to illustrate the problems with over-exposing film,” Schoenthaler said. “The image is being used in a transformative way; that is, the purpose for use in the course is completely different than its original purpose.”

“In a course about web design, it is acceptable to show a web screen shot of an auction from eBay to illustrate a web design technique; that is, the transformative purpose is to illustrate a web design principle, completely different from eBay’s intended purpose of hosting an online auction,” she added.

Aside from this type of fair use, it is also acceptable for faculty to utilize limited portions of copyrighted materials that directly relate to the educational goal.

“In particular, limited images that demonstrate or illustrate the educational concept at issue could be found to be fair use when used sparingly and appropriately,” she said. For example, a plant cell dividing in a biology course would like qualify as fair use.

She recommended that faculty use public domain media rather than its copyrighted counterpart.

“I often advise MOOC creators to avoid copyright concerns by relying on the many websites that offer either public domain or freely licensed images,” she said.

She remains optimistic that these legal concerns will be a hindrance to the advancement of online education.

“Putting together slides for MOOCs definitely requires more intentionality around the sourcing of images compared to standard in-class presentations,” she said. “In the end though, copyright concerns are definitely surmountable and should never present a barrier.”

Mitchell shares the same view.

“I think that that the legal issues should be manageable,” he said. “If we have good ideas and material that we think is useful for our students or we want to make available publicly, there are ways to do that that use the law to protect us and allow us to do the things that we want to do.”

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