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Classroom Capture: Whose intellectual property is it?


When the university rolled out the expansion of its Classroom Capture services in 2011, the intent was to create a service that enables students who cannot attend class to receive a similar experience by viewing the actual lectures that are recorded and placed online. 

But in the years that followed questions began to surface: 

What happens to the lectures when the course is over? What happens after the faculty member dies? Who owns copyright over the comments made by students in the recorded classes? What examples or materials are protected? Who, in essence, do the courses – and the content in them – belong to: the faculty member or the university? 

Last week, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution calling for the university to develop a formalized policy to explicitly outline the policies regarding intellectual property rights that have surfaced as a result of Classroom Capture.    

But USF Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Dwayne Smith said the call for the policy is a response to changes in higher education that have left several such unanswered questions.

“Policies across higher education aren’t set up to be reflective of a changing fiscal environment and changing technologies across the country,” he said. 

While any policy will have to comply with federal and state copyright laws as well as the university’s collective bargaining agreement, Smith said administrators and faculty are working to find a balance between faculty and university ownership rights. 

But unlike the existing policies, which apply to inventions and patents, ownership over intellectual properties prove to be a gray area.  

While with patents and inventions such as drug discoveries, Smith said universities would like to try to share some rights – the case of the University of Florida’s royalties over Gatorade which brings in close to $12 million a year in new revenue being a prime example – with the products of intellectual capacity, the university tends to stay away from claiming rights.  

“The notion of university ownership is weaker in academia than it would be out there in the industrial world,” Smith said. “In the industrial world, if you create something on company time, the company gets the rights. You may be lucky if you get a piece of the action rather than the other way around at a university.”

But in some cases, Smith said, the university would like to retain rights to a course created by a faculty member. 

“We’ve had an emerging set of situations where we’ve had faculty paid to develop courses, but with the understanding that they’re passing on the course to the university,” Smith said. “That doesn’t necessarily include the physical lectures they give, but the content that they give – for instance, selected readings and a number of materials.” 

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled on a case an inventor filed against Stanford University in relation to the university’s claims on a drug discovery, and Chief Justice John Roberts stated intellectual property rights belonged first to the inventor, though the rights could be contracted away to the university. 

Terry Sincich, an Information Systems Decision Sciences professor who teaches an introductory statistics course to more than 600 students each semester, has used Classroom Capture – and before that VHS tape capture – for years now. While he hosts live classes twice a week at 8 a.m. that any student enrolled in any of the sections of his class are able to attend, the lecture is available online and he said attendance for his live classes tend to dwindle as the semester goes on and not many make use of the time to ask questions. 

Though he said he did not worry about the content being available for all to see online, he said the lectures could pose a potential threat to the needs for professors. 

“My concern would be that someone would say ‘Why do we need him to teach once its already been captured?'” he said. 

But since 1989, when he began offering the course via recorded services, the issue hasn’t manifested itself yet.   

Current guidelines for Classroom Captures call for the lectures to be removed from their streaming site a week after the semester ends, unless a faculty member chooses to keep them up. 

But even if the faculty member chooses to leave them up, other issues remain.

As technology continues to evolve, and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), become more of a presence, the landscape of intellectual property rights and ownership also changes. In 2013, the American Association of University Professors issued a warning to faculty members saying their intellectual property rights were in danger.

Intellectual property rights fall under two categories: patent law and copyright law.

“Many campus copyright policies remain good, but they are being undermined by the online course revolution, including the wave of interest in MOOCs, since many institutions have sought to deny faculty members their traditional rights to the instructional materials they author,” the warning said. “Campus patent policies, however, have taken a radical turn for the worse, with a number of campuses revising them to mandate automatic institutional ownership of the fruits of scholarly work.”

Currently, USF’s policies define lectures as “works” which are considered either independent efforts, which the university holds no liability over the content or what is said and faculty retain full rights, or “USF System-supported initiatives” which become “the property of the USF System and the employee shall share in the proceeds therefrom.”  

Steve Permuth, who has spearheaded the Faculty Senate committee exploring the issue, said seeking a balance of ownership rights is important to faculty. 

“But it’s a different breed, what we do,” he said. “How many people do what we do? We’re expected to write and publish and teach. 

In fields outside of academia, he said, the issue can sometimes be clearer.

“Let’s say I develop a beautiful sonata,” he said. “Is that not really mine?” 

Permuth said the committee will continue to work with administrators and General Counsel to develop a policy. 

Outgoing Faculty Senate President Gregory Teague said Classroom Capture was simply the surface of the issue, as technology would continue to impact the business model of higher education. 

“We need as faculty to be fully aware of these things,” he said. “It’s not just USF. It’s the country.”