141

There's a professor at my school that claims to be writing a book. He is requiring students to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before certain lectures because he wants to maintain certain ideas of teaching his content part of his intellectual property.

I think that part is reasonable (to an extent) since he is protecting his ideas.

What I think is unreasonable is the fact that he requires all students to sign these NDAs, and offers no alternative presentation of the subject matter. Thus if a student does not wish to sign, they end up missing out on lectures that they have already paid the university to receive, and they have a potential of missing out on graded content that is "covered" by the material that the professor is restricting.

Students have no notice that this will happen prior to entering the class and thus are forced to sign if the don't want to withdraw.

Controversial Post — You may use comments ONLY to suggest improvements. You may use answers ONLY to provide a solution to the specific question asked above. Moderators will remove debates, arguments or opinions without notice. See: Why do the moderators move comments to chat and how should I behave afterwards?

  • 1
    Answers in comments and extended discussion have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Sep 10 at 13:45
  • 1
    Do you have access to the NDA? Do you know what does it cover, exactly? When I joined my research institution I had to sign an NDA, and so do every student or employee that comes, which is preventing us from disclosing other people's unpublished research. If the NDA covered the unpublished research taught in the course, it would be very different. – Davidmh Sep 12 at 6:29

16 Answers 16

248

No. It’s not appropriate and this is an obvious, blatant abuse of authority. I have a word in mind to describe this professor, but unfortunately am not free to disclose it as I am under an NDA. (It starts with an “i” and ends with a “t”).

Edit: to those asking “why not?”: teaching the class is the professor’s job. He is literally (in the literal sense of “literally”) required to teach the lecture and to allow any registered student who isn’t being disruptive to attend it, without setting any preconditions. And of course this swearing of students to legally binding secrecy is even more absurd than other types of conditions, considering the students are there to acquire knowledge they’ll need to use later in their studies and career. The whole “I’ll teach you but you have to promise not to tell anyone about it” thing reads like something straight out of Catch-22.

  • 3
    While I wouldn't contest the main direction of the answer (not appropriate), the argument that students are entitled to learn and the NDA wouldn't permit them to use their knowledge hinges on the formulation of the NDA. It may be solely focussed on the how they learned not the what they learned, i.e. structure of the course, examples, etc. This would leave the students free to apply their domain knowledge, it would just limit them in re-teaching it as in they could not do it the same way. – Frank Hopkins Sep 9 at 19:09
  • 21
    @FrankHopkins in a narrow technical sense you may be correct. However, the idea that students would need to carefully separate the how from the what whenever they are applying the knowledge they learned or sharing that knowledge with someone, at risk of legal sanction and into the indefinite future, clearly places a heavy and undue burden on the students. Quite simply, NDAs have no place in a teaching environment regardless of their scope. As someone said in another answer, NDAs are antithetical to the very mission of teaching, which is to share knowledge. – Dan Romik Sep 9 at 19:15
  • 1
    @FrankHopkins " It may be solely focussed on the how they learned not the what they learned, i.e. structure of the course, examples, etc. " Aah, yes the - I've perfected the ultimate method of teaching, so my feedback might give me $50 more per year, so I wont tell anyone. This argument is silly beyond recognition. – Captain Giraffe Sep 9 at 21:43
  • 2
    @FrankHopkins the how is just as much part of the knowledge being transferred by teaching as the what. A teacher's job is to teach and one of the most important parts of teaching is precisely teaching how to teach. If you want to keep your teaching tricks secret, then don't teach! – terdon Sep 10 at 10:35
  • 2
    Moderator’s notice to those complaining about the deleted comments: All of these were (at best mildly entertaining) jokes about the i…t assessment (apart from one obsolete request for clarification). I am quite confident that Dan would have clarified his answer if he seriously considered them “questions about [his] answer”. Any further contemplations on the possible meanings of i…t will be deleted without warning. If you actually need this clarified, please write so. If you seriously want these comments undeleted, please take it to Academia Meta or raise a flag providing a good argument. – Wrzlprmft Sep 10 at 13:34
148

He may or may not be "protecting his ideas", but, in fact, teaching has as a goal the dissemination of ideas. If one wants to keep secrets or have proprietary stuff, don't pretend to teach a friggin' class! :)

  • 1
    What's worse, there's nothing stopping the professor from just teaching the class without using it as time to plan his book. – David Sep 10 at 15:41
86

I don't know what your university regulations are, but there must be something in there that says that a professor cannot refuse teaching to their students, no matter what you sign or don't sign.

It's time to ask your student union/representatives/whatever you have to reach out to your dean and demand a different solution.

  • 14
    While I agree this NDA sounds utterly inappropriate, I don’t think university regulations are likely to have such a blanket prohibition. There are certainly classes where students are required to sign some kind of agreement: e.g. medical students meeting patients must commit to respecting their privacy, students in certain practical lab classes must sign safety/responsibility agreements, and in some research-based classes students may see confidential data. What I’d expect regulations to require is that the professor needs a legitimate educational reason to require an NDA or similar. – PLL Sep 9 at 21:44
  • 5
    It’s called a syllabus, which is a legally binding contract. If the prof failed to achieve the contract, ie learning outcomes, they open a liability. – y3sh Sep 10 at 3:33
  • 7
    @PLL in the cases you mention surely it's the university which requires those agreements to be signed, and consequently the university which refuses to allow the professor to teach them if they don't sign, as opposed to the professor personally refusing to teach. – Especially Lime Sep 10 at 9:31
  • 1
    @EspeciallyLime +1 Its not even the university, its public laws and regulations about patient rights, data security or workplace safety. And research is not teaching. The student can always choose another project. Probably unfunded. ;) – Karl Sep 10 at 20:48
35

The instructor is paid to teach, not write a book. If the book gets in the way of his/her teaching duties, either s/he give up teaching OR give up the book. Moreover, I doubt this instructor can prevent random people walking in his/her classroom so the whole NDA is 100%-proof shhhhhhhhugar.

  • 14
    Writing books and other scholarly publications may very well be part of the professor's required duties, and it is reasonable to try to balance such activities with teaching. But I agree that I don't see how the NDA is necessary. Also, in a reasonably small class, it is perfectly easy for a professor to notice random people and ask them to leave. – Nate Eldredge Sep 9 at 0:26
  • 5
    No, but you can stop lecturing when they come in, ask them to leave, and resume when they're gone. Then they won't have seen/heard any significant amount of the NDA material. I fully agree that the NDA is a bad idea and inappropriate, but I don't think this specific issue is what undermines it. – Nate Eldredge Sep 9 at 3:50
  • 6
    What does "100%-proof shhhhhhhhugar" mean? – Tommi Brander Sep 9 at 9:34
  • 15
    @TommiBrander Looks like a minced oath, representing someone saying "100-proof sh-" with the intention of saying a vulgar word, but then hesitating for a few moments before deciding to finish the phrase using the word "sugar" instead of the word that was intended originally. – Tanner Swett Sep 9 at 12:25
  • 3
    @ZeroTheHero: (1) Money, I assume. (2) Our students are commonly confused enough that sometimes they sit in the wrong classroom for an entire semester and then lodge a complaint at the end. U.S. culture is very "anyone can come regardless of qualifications as long as they pay us". – Daniel R. Collins Sep 9 at 15:26
15

It probably depends on where you are, but the University, where I used to teach (and to my knowledge it is quite standard here in Europe), had it in the contract that everything you did while working for the university belonged to the university. That means that the professor can't exclude members of the university to the knowledge he acquired while working in the university.

Furthermore, having lectures which often require to be uploaded on-line would serve as a basis to protect his rights on the ideas (for patents, books, etc.).

NDAs are required to protect your know-how and patent-able ideas. No book ideas. Uploading the course on-line, would allow him to actually use his ideas and prevent patents to block him.

  • 4
    While this is common practice (intellectual property being assigned to the institution), it doesn't mean that students have any rights to that intellectual property. – Michael Mior Sep 9 at 12:06
  • I believe there's a question or two around addressing this ownership question. At my school (which I believe is typical for the US) instructors own the course materials they create. You can freely take it with you to your new job at the next school for example. Though the school may get some kind of license to use it too. To cover them if, for example, they want to video your lectures and keep them. Other forms of IP (i.e. patents) may be handled very differently of course, because they're worth something. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 11 at 16:56
13

What is it, exactly, that the Professor is trying to protect with this NDA? Is it the course subject matter itself, the method of teaching or the specific text of the course materials (lecture notes/slides)?

The first case would be clearly nonsensical. If he is teaching a University course, the subject matter is almost certainly generally-accepted mainstream science that was likely published many years ago and so is in the public domain anyway. So, it is unlikely that he has any particular claim to the subject matter (unless he has single-handedly developed all of the theory for that entire field). In any case, this goes against the main goal of academic research, which is to publish research findings to add to the cumulative knowledge of humanity, not to keep them secret for one's own benefit.

In the second case, can a teaching method be considered Intellectual Property? It seems highly unlikely he would be able to apply for a patent for a teaching method. Patents are typically reserved for more concrete inventions and innovations. Besides a patent, the only way it could be considered intellectual property would be for him to intend to keep the teaching method secret. However, his intention to publish a book about it would seem to contradict that. Also, as with the first point, this seems to go against the grain of academia, since teaching methods are also an active area of published research.

For the third case, as alephzero points out in the question comments, the specific text of lecture notes, presentation slides and/or a book can be protected by copyright. However, the Professor should not require students to sign an NDA to do this - simply make it clear to the students that the course materials are subject to copyright. These things are already protected, without the need for an NDA.

In summary, the course materials are protected by copyright anyway, and it seems very unlikely that any NDA would be enforceable to protect the subject matter or teaching method. So, you probably don't have too much to worry about by signing it.

  • 3
    If the teaching method was truly innovative and could be described in the manner a patent requires of e.g. an industrial manufacturing process, yes, it certainly could be patented. – Nij Sep 10 at 3:44
  • @Nij ok, that's interesting. My understanding was that abstract ideas and concepts cannot be patented. Is there any precedent for a teaching method being granted a patent? – Time4Tea Sep 10 at 12:29
  • 1
    A teaching method is not an "abstract idea or concept" - it's a real process that is used to achieve some real outcome. It may be underpinned by a lot of theory, and the application of specific theory in a certain way may be part of the process, and if this theory is well-known or obvious it will probably reduce support for the method's novelty. – Nij Sep 10 at 19:48
  • @Nij ok. Still, if we put aside definitions, unless there are examples of teaching methods that have been granted patents, I would say the question of their patentability is somewhat speculative. – Time4Tea Sep 10 at 20:47
  • 1
    That's absolutely nonsense. Patents apply to anything that meet the requirements. The closest that you might call "only to commercial application" in the USA is the utility requirement, which doesn't involve commercialisability, and in the EU only industrial use, which teaching (the education industry) is. @Karl – Nij Sep 11 at 3:39
13

IANAL, but this NDA is likely not worth the paper it's printed on.

  1. An NDA requiring students not to disclose information they were taught in class will be likely found onerous by a reasonable court, because it clearly conflicts with the purpose of teaching and lessens the value of education received, and invalidated if the professor ever tries to enforce it.

  2. An NDA can only be applied to information which is held confidential by the owner. A reasonable court will likely rule that information presented as a part of curriculum in a school loses its confidential status, thereby invalidating the NDA.

  3. If the judge has a sense of humor (which is admittedly rare), they may rule that taking the exam on the course constitutes compelled disclosure, which also nullifies NDA protection.

I don't advise you to sign this agreement, but if you already did, there's not much to worry about really.

11

This NDA paranoia contradicts the very idea of teaching. Imagine that some company hires you to do some job. And at some moment you discover that that job requires you to use knowledge given to you on that NDA-protected lecture. What must you do? You must tell your customers: "Please wait, my NDA expires in 16 months?"

In addition, I think that the professor over-estimates the readiness of the society to accept his ideas, whatever they are. For example, Java 8 introduced streams. By that time, that technique was known for more than 2 decades.

I do not know what he proposed, but I can tell you what he will get in response:

  1. it is too exotic
  2. it is not needed
  3. it is too complex
  4. who will use it? it is too different from what people are taught
  5. there is no practical use
  6. the problem that it solves is no problem
  7. the problem that it solves already is solved with existing methods
  8. no, I do not see any advantage
  9. why did not you use the traditional notation?
  10. it does not work in the general case
  11. the part X of your proposal is described as bad practice in the book Y
  12. you said the word X, how your work is related to Y X Z? (If they are not related, why did you use the word X that already has a meaning?)

On the other hand, it is possible that his contribution is just the organization of the material (this may range from explanation in simple words to things like vector/matrix maths, a notation that really simplified thinking). In this case, a NDA on the way of thinking is just unfair to the students.

Either way, there should be no NDA. But what you can do may depend on your country.

New contributor
18446744073709551615 is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
6

A non-disclosure agreement only protects information that is not generally known. I seriously doubt that standard lectures can be protected information. I don't see how an NDA is appropriate in the case outlined in your question.

Why would you pay for information that you are then not allowed to use?

New contributor
Antony is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
6

Management: "This student says you walked him out of your class, what happened?"
Professor: "He refused to sign my non-disclosure agreement"

I don't think the university will take very kindly to your professor's arrangement. Unless he has received prior clearance from the university to do this, I can see it getting him into trouble.

4

One of the main purposes of teaching is to prepare students for research or real-world by presenting the latest ideas, methodologies, and tools. If you have something that you intend to present it in a book or a journal paper, just do not teach it yet.

Perhaps the professor is protecting his lecture notes before publishing them as a book. While this is reasonable as the OP suggested, presenting no other alternative is not acceptable. As a teacher, your first responsibility is to teach and not write books. If you want to protect your material, you should adapt your lecture notes. It's just lazy to provide no alternatives and ask students for signing NDAs.

  • 3
    Based on your first line, for a moment, I thought you were going to talk about how this prepares the students for crappy NDA requirements in their real-world lives ;) – Jasper Sep 11 at 12:01
4

It is not appropriate to withhold material from a student for failure to sign an NDA. That said, it is appropriate to remind the students of the value of intellectual property, and that they are not the copyright holders of the provided material.

By way of explanation -- the work at issue is protected by copyright. There may be some debate about who is entitled to the fruits of that copyright, the author or the institution, but many US institutions will cede to the author. In any case, it is NOT the student.

The way this is handled at my institution is that it is covered in the Academic Honesty policy.

The sharing or distribution of course materials for purposes of giving or gaining unfair advantage in a course is prohibited. Students must further respect the requirements of copyright protection for materials that are made available for instructional purposes.

All the students read, and sign, the academic honesty policy upon entrance, and generally receive reminders at each course on the first meeting. Also, if the prof has any non-obvious course policies on honesty, such as how students are allowed to collaborate on teamwork, this is also shared on day one, as well as in the syllabus.

Thus, any unapproved sharing of lecture or other material is treated like any other violation of academic honesty policies. There is no "Cease and Desist" to the student (but any site hosting the material might get a request to take it down, and if non-responsive, might well get a Cease and Desist, or it's equivalent), but there may certainly be ramifications. For example, if the student has a previous major violation on record, such as cheating on an exam, a case involving unauthorized sharing might even result in separation (though a lowering of the course grade or failure in the course might be the more likely scenario).

I don't know that this would preempt the professor from pursuing independent legal action. For example, if a professor spent five years writing a textbook for the publisher, and found the entire preprint online prior to publication, and had real financial damage, I don't know if university policy would preclude a copyright violation lawsuit.

To summarize, the work is already protected by copyright, whether an NDA is signed or not. Asking students for an NDA, and refusing to distribute material to students unwilling to sign, is inappropriate. Some universities (maybe even "many") include copyright violation in their academic honesty policy, and students might experience penalties for traceable violations. There is also a possibility that students may be subject to the same legal actions that any copyright violator is exposed to.

Addendum: The University of Maryland has had their lawyers write up a treatment, which largely confirms my assertions, at https://president.umd.edu/faculty-course-materials-strategies-dealing-commercial-use. The situations where this comes up most often of late is when students upload course materials and exams to services like CourseHero or Chegg, but all the concepts apply for any unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material.

3

Asking students to sign an NDA in order to take your class is absurd.

Some points I haven't seen in other answers:

  • Non-disclosure agreements are legal documents. In theory, each student should discuss the document with their lawyer. In practice, most college students aren't going to have their own lawyer, or have spare cash lying around for paying a lawyer to review an NDA. Forcing a non-disclosure agreement on each student places an undue burden on them.

  • The NDA would create legal and bureaucratic headaches for the students and university. For example, say that the professor engages in personal misconduct during class. Can the students report this to the university without violating the NDA? Worse, what if the actual subject matter of the lesson violates university standards/ethics? Taken to an absurd extreme, what if the professor starts teaching racism and holocaust denial, or instructing students in how to build a bomb?

  • Lastly, the lasting implications of the NDA are confusing. Does the NDA mean that the students can't apply the knowledge from the class to future classes or careers? This might be answered in the wording of the NDA, but that again relies on the student having access to a legal professional to fully explain all ramifications of the NDA to them.

  • I remember showing up the first day at a job and being handed an NDA to sign. Seems to me the professor has done the same thing. – historystamp Sep 11 at 4:03
  • A point that goes with your point about NDAs being legal documents: when I started university I was seventeen, i.e., not legally an adult, so it may not have been legal for me to sign an NDA even if I'd wanted to. – nnnnnn Sep 11 at 11:21
  • @historystamp I hope you aren't suggesting they're equivalent. NDAs for employment/contract work are common, and they aren't an unreasonable burden because it leads to you making income. Students have already paid money to attend courses and may not have disposable income to spend on lawyers. What you learn on the job might be a trade secret. What you learn in a class is supposed to be applicable to your future after the class is over. – user45623 Sep 12 at 7:40
2

Is this his IP/data, or does it belong to a third party?

First of all, in an American university this would be highly irregular. Behavior like this should be escalated to a department chair or dean--unless it falls into one of two narrow exceptions.

Exception 1 - Controlled Data

Some entities release data for scientific or educational uses, and they have contractual agreements with the recipient that the data is only to be used in those circumstances.

If the lesson includes such data or reports from third parties, the professor cannot use it legally without permission, and such permission is usually contingent on NDAs.

Even if this is the case, the professor should be very clear about which documents are covered, who owns the documents/data, and what are the penalties for noncompliance with the NDA.

Exception 2 - Sensitive or Copyrighted Materials

Sometimes sensitive documents or otherwise unpublished copyrighted material (including source code) are distributed for educational purposes. This is less common than controlled data, but some schools have close relationships with private sector partners.

All of the same caveats apply here. It is the professor's responsibility to identify clearly the protected material, the owner, and the consequences of breaching the NDA.

His methods and data.

If this is some sort of overblown attempt to keep his materials protected, it needs to be escalated.

The professor will own copyrights on any material he produces in the absence of a university policy to the contrary.

If this is pre-publication material for a textbook that he authors/coauthors, then both the publisher and the university should be aware of it.

0

I think this violates the basic trust and respect towards a student. These processes may be technically successful by introducing fear and feeling of liabilities, but at this cost the student losses the sincerity and spontaniety to do willfully for oneself and for the lab and the guide.

-7

I'll take the minority stand.

NDAs are now a standard in the startup ecosystem. Getting students readied for this reality may have been an unintended result of the professor's request.

I have come across a professor who was conducting sponsored research. He could describe the intent of algorithm he was developping, but was not allowed to describe the solution he was implementing.

The ability or willingness for professors or students to require or sign NDAs can widen the scope of university corporation cross collaborations where protecting a competitive advantage is a requirement.

I can see how some ideas may need time to be refined. In this case the professor would provide a peek in his research yet to be completed or even validated.

I would sign up the agreement knowing the book publishing would release me from the NDA terms.

New contributor
OneArb is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • 4
    Well, maybe don't charge tuition, etc., then? – paul garrett Sep 10 at 0:17
  • 1
    @ paul garrett Can you consider that when universities start to partner with corporations, NDAs are meant to preserve a competitive advantage? Won't students benefit when corporations and universities start overlapping? – OneArb Sep 10 at 1:09
  • 5
    While I can see situations in which an NDA would be appropriate under the circumstances you describe, it would have to be narrowly tailored to a specific need in a way that mainly benefits student learning. For example, an NDA specifically to protect the privacy of research subjects could be reasonable because it allows the student the learning experience of participating in research. But the benefit here seems to be entirely for the professor: he wants to prohibit his students from making full use of the material they're paying to learn. – Zach Lipton Sep 10 at 9:00
  • @ Zach Lipton Until OP provides the lecture subject and topic and request from the professor further elements to support his reasoning, this question is a shifting target. – OneArb Sep 10 at 12:14
  • 5
    Not clear to me that students generally benefit from corporatization of universities. Some may. Most won't. It tends to corrupt universities' principles, and leads more to a "trained workforce" rather than "educated population", in my observation, and with all that that entails, ideologically/socially. – paul garrett Sep 10 at 21:49

protected by Anonymous Physicist Sep 10 at 6:31

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.