MOOCs: A Napster-level threat to copyright and higher ed?

Brian Warmoth

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) will have to answer a lot of questions in 2013, and as more schools in more states start participating, you can expect to see that list of issues grow before it starts shrinking. Faculty members at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, want to talk about who owns course content.

The topic on the table—copyright—should be a familiar one to anyone who has followed disruption in the online age. Napster upended an era of music industry business models and revenue streams in the early 2000s. Free-flowing content over the file-sharing service unleashed waves of lawsuits and protection wars to secure content. Now, MOOCs stand to achieve similar infamy among educators, depending on who you talk to.

At UCSC, the school's contract with its MOOC platform of choice—Coursera—stipulates that course lecturers who participate must make certain concessions. Those concessions may include irrevocably granting UCSC "the absolute right and permission to use, store, host, publicly broadcast, publicly display, public[sic] perform, distribute, reproduce and digitize any Content that I upload, share or otherwise provide in connection with the Course or my use of the Platform, including the full and absolute right to use my name, voice, image or likeness," according to a March 5 letter, written by Shelly Errington, chair of the Santa Cruz Faculty Association Executive Board, to Renée Mayne, UCSC's senior labor relations administrator.

Those terms, as Errington sees them, are problematic for the Council of University of California Faculty Associations. By law in California, as Inside Higher Ed reports, faculty members own the intellectual property rights associated with their class lectures and course materials. Thus, it's easy to understand why professors might feel uneasy about an agreement that could effectively nullify such rights.

"Currently, any online platform that SCFA members can avail themselves of is strictly voluntary and within his or her own right to license their work," Mayne wrote in response to Errington's letter. "Any agreements signed by SCFA members do not have monetary offers to the faculty member or future promises of money."

I think it is likely that copyright issues are going to be hammered out on a case-by-case basis with MOOCs. The UCSC faculty association's reaction in this case, is not unlike Minnesota's move last year to ban Coursera MOOCs outright. MOOCs entered the education arena without the supervision and regulatory constraints that traditional institutions had, and although the state eventually relented, there was a moment of concern over whether or not MOOC providers would have to play by the same rules that the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State University do.

So do professors need to worry about MOOCs cutting off their revenue streams from textbooks, course packets and video-captured lectures? Not necessarily. Unlike Napster, companies such as Coursera and Udacity have launched operations with interests in monetizing later on. Educators as content creators should get a piece of whatever those revenues turn out to be. Right now, they are being asked voluntarily to help set up an ecosystem and build followings in hopes of cultivating these revenue streams.

As textbooks go digital and more education takes place online, schools and educators who build MOOC audiences early on may be in the best shape as revenue evolves. That's what everyone needs to keep in mind. As long as instructors aren't hornswoggled out of their intellectual property in the process, everyone should be better off in the end.


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Filed Under: Higher Ed Technology Policy & Regulation Online Learning
Top image credit: Flickr user _dChris