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As a response for the Covid-19 pandemic, my university built an electronic platform, and is now ordering professors to share their courses on it.

The school platform is open to the public, so I'd rather not share my documents on it. I've been using Google Classroom to share content with my students.

Can I rightfully refuse to use the school's platform?

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    Have you checked the university's Intellectual Property policy? If so, what does it say? – JenB Apr 10 at 14:56
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    Some textbooks are downloadable, e.g. this textbook on operating systems, and some books have CCBYSA license. Please define what are your professional goals. Academic reputation has economical value. – Basile Starynkevitch Apr 10 at 15:17
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    These days, availability of drafts doesn't generally seem to preclude book publication, at least not in mathematics. – darij grinberg Apr 10 at 22:51
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    Putting content online doesn't preclude you from subsequently publishing a textbook. In some of the sciences at least, this is in fact becoming quite a common model, to put content out there for feedback before finalising it. The key thing is that you should label everything with a copyright statement - copyright exists automatically at the moment of creation, but you should unambiguously assert it, to prevent the impression that content is somehow in the public domain just by virtue of being on this open platform. – Michael MacAskill Apr 10 at 23:25
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    @nick012000 that’s not how tenure works. Disobeying directives from your employer, assuming they are legal, will get you into trouble (up to and including termination of employment) even if you have tenure. – Dan Romik Apr 11 at 12:55
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Can I rightfully refuse to use the school's platform?

TL;DR: legally, probably not, but you are still more or less in the right according to the norms of academia.

Longer answer:

This isn’t so much about rights in the legal sense. The underlying context is that there is a longstanding tradition in academia that faculty own the rights to written (and other) media they create as part of their work. This is the case in the US where these rights are pretty universally respected as far as I’m aware, and in many other countries, and is true despite the fact that legally, in the US at least, employers in general can (and, outside of academia, generally do) assert ownership of all intellectual property generated by employees in a work context.

In other words, academic institutions have quite intentionally and explicitly given up some of the legal ownership rights they are in principle entitled to. As far as I understand, the guiding philosophy here is that faculty exercise a lot more freedom and control over what kind of materials they produce compared to employees in other sectors. That means the work is regarded as being of a more personal, creative nature, and it was decided long ago that that should mean that faculty would be the owners of the work. (Note: I am talking specifically about copyright; for other forms of IP like patent rights, a quite different philosophy and different policies typically apply.)

Coming back to your question: I think you are quite right to be concerned. Your university is at the very least showing itself as somewhat deaf to these very old and well-established ideas. But can you “rightfully refuse”? Legally, that’s less clear. But it would be quite reasonable to express a concern. At my university the administration has provided reassurance to faculty that their copyright over teaching materials would be respected during the COVID-19 crisis, and we were given quite specific explanations on how our rights would be balanced against the need to deliver our teaching remotely, including providing recordings, what steps we can take to prevent students from sharing our materials, and more. Perhaps by raising the issue you and your colleagues can push your own administration to also think this through a bit more.

Let me finish by encouraging you to also adopt a more flexible and tolerant mindset. All of us are called upon these days to get out of our comfort zone and appear in online videos and recordings, use online platforms with awful records on privacy, and generally engage in activities that in normal times we might consider distasteful and privacy-violating. We do this with the understanding that exceptional times call for exceptional measures, and that the highest priority right now is to keep the lights on at our institutions. As I said, I think your concern is reasonable and probably you can reach some sensible understanding with your administration about your class materials. But while you discuss the issue with them, try to keep some perspective and not make yourself too much of a pain in the butt. As important and valid as this is, people do have worse things to worry about these days.

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    Everything I ever developed for a US University was considered work for hire, and was explicitly stated as such in my contract – Ian Turton Apr 10 at 14:56
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    @IanTurton so if you were to write a textbook, your employer would own the copyright for it? Are you sure? I never heard of such a thing. Would you mind saying which university you are referring to? – Dan Romik Apr 10 at 16:58
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    Only if they instructed me to write the book, writing lectures etc was what they were paying me for – Ian Turton Apr 10 at 17:54
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    @IanTurton okay, I can see that there is some room for nitpicking here, but it seems like a waste of time to start discussing what might happen when you publish a textbook containing materials derived from your lecture notes, etc. Well, for what it’s worth I stand by the essence of what I said, although I suppose there are always exceptions. Another reminder of the “academia is a big place” principle. – Dan Romik Apr 10 at 19:32
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    @IanTurton My university requires me to give lectures; they do not specifically require me to write lecture notes. So the university owns the copyright to the lectures (as work-for-hire performances), but I own the copyright to my lecture notes. My university does assert a royalty-free license to use whatever I write (both teaching and research), but that doesn't given them the right to publish it (= make it available to the public) without my permission. Academia is a big place. – JeffE Apr 11 at 4:55
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There are a couple of things that are important to understand in this context:

Copyright ownership: The school

First and foremost it's absolutely crucial to acknowledge that if you are getting paid to do something, for example preparing and giving courses, then it's totally the schools right to decide what to do with that work. If they want to offer the fruit of your paid work only to the students that pay them: Then they can. If they want to offer the fruit of your paid work to everyone who pays a fee: Then they can. If they want to offer the fruit of your paid work for free to the world: Then they can. (Not to say that their ability couldn't be contractually more limited than this, and for that you would have to check your contract, all I am saying here is that this is the default position from which you start).

Tradition and the unique relationship in academia

At the same time it needs to be acknowledged that certain parts of the academic world have grown very accustomed to doing something a certain way and it can occasionally feel like you aren't just an employee. Especially those who can pull in a lot of external funding tend to be given a lot of free reign, so this relationship can grow a lot more complex. Nonetheless, at the end of the day in most situations the university will still expect a certain amount of time spend on educational duties. Point is that it's understandable that you feel surprised by a request like this.

Another way academia differs from other organizations is that when you move from one place to another place it has been accepted that you take your work with you. In contrast if you were giving courses in a more non-university/non-academic environment (speaking from experience working for a brief period in a private re-education program) it would be expected you would leave your courses with your old employer and write and design new stuff for your new employer. And at the same time the old employer would hire someone to continue working with whatever you produced and prepared.

Why does the academic world not do that? I would argue that that's because there is an underlying understanding that we want to share and improve the world for everyone. And that even goes so far as allowing their employees to independently publish the work they worked on in their employ. In the past it wasn't realistic for universities to directly publish everything everyone worked on, so if someone got their work published that was a win-win-win. The author got credit and a bit of money, the university got another work they can use in their courses and the public/other academics also get access to that information. As publishing becomes cheaper it's not unnatural to expect this to change (as has for example happened with some universities which published video recordings of all lectures online).

Your copyright

Likely however due to the history of the academic world both you and your university have the legal right to do more or less whatever you want with the work you created (regardless of whom holds the copyright, the other party will have a very broad and far reaching license). So the thing I just wanted to point out that even if you publish whatever you have right now on the university platform, it probably won't in any way stop you from publishing a more detailed work in the future. Publishing it there won't typically give anybody the right to do anything with it beyond reading it, so you don't have to worry about someone running of and publishing it.

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    I personally own the copyright to all my lecture notes and broad contents of my courses, including exams. A professor of music still own copyright to the works she or he creates. There’s a different IP policy for patents. Maybe this is different from one jurisdiction to the next. – ZeroTheHero Apr 12 at 15:52
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Do you have a union? Or a fculty association? At the university from which I retired a few years ago, the faculty association is a union, in the full sense of labour law. They can and should advise you on your legal rights and represent you in dealing with the administration. In my jurisdiction, a union is legally obliged to act on behalf of its members, even if it's an issue they would rather avoid. The legal issues are very complex and they vary greatly from one place to another. Long-standing custom is one thing to look at but that is not the same as a contract. Trying to be your own lawyer is akin to expecting a lawyer to teach your course on topological algebra. You might consider, after consulting with legal representation, whether you should go along with the administration's request or directive but at the same time sending a registered letter to the university administration stating that your compliance is not to be construed as an abandonment of any of your ownership rights, copyright or otherwise.

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This is maybe exploitatory. The real question is simple though. Do you own your course material or the university? It totally depends on university policy. A better scenario would be that you filter out some key segments from the notes and create a rather bland set for a free public view. You may need to work more, but that is alright. If you are following this route, you need not mention it to anyone. As for the exam this year, you may go easy.

By the way, if your book is really good, it will sell anyway!!

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    Every university where I have worked, and it is the same for all of my colleagues where they worked, is material prepared & presented for student class becomes the property of the university. – Solar Mike Apr 10 at 6:06
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There are some interesting perspectives and it seems to me a case that the University is certainly not right but the motivation of the OP (which we don’t fully know) may not be so right either. I am not a lawyer but I don’t see why they can force your to make your notes publicly available; the university might request you make them available to your class but that’s not the same as publishing this on an openly accessible website.

Lecture notes should be considered at best drafts of a book and should not be released without the consent of the instructor. They might contain errors, typos, omissions and possible copyright infringements (due to re-use of figures, improper sourcing etc), none of which are malicious but all of which occur in the draft stages of eventually producing a finished product.

On the other hand I’ve seen too many examples of abuse in this matter, where instructors force students to buy the textbook of the instructor, making trivial changes from one year to the next to minimize the 2nd hand market, and essentially treating a class like a captive audience. I hope this is not what the OP has in mind. It is the job of an instructor to organize knowledge, and this is one reason he or she gets compensated not just for the performance but also the selection of the material appropriate for class, the organization of evaluation etc.

Of course someone has to produce textbooks and those who do should be rewarded for it.

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  • Some people who use their own required textbooks will refund to their students whatever per-copy royalty they receive from the publisher. – Buffy Apr 12 at 15:56
  • @Buffy too few do that I’m sorry to say. – ZeroTheHero Apr 12 at 16:30

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