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I have created a course independent of the community college I substitute for. I contacted the CE department about a year ago to see if my course would be something I could offer as a CE course at the college. They were excited and after several meetings my course is scheduled to begin this fall.

However, there have been a few red flags that have me concerned that maybe the college will try to take my course and teach it without me being the instructor. No compensation for all the hours creating the course has been paid. Besides substituting for one of the technical programs, I am not currently a paid staff member. They did not ask me to create the course for the college, I came to the department with the course already created.

I guess my question is: how do I ensure they don’t take the curriculum as property of the college if something goes sideways?

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    Can you clarify what materials you are concerned they would try to use? If it’s just the idea of “teaching a course about X from textbook Y”, that’s not really something you can claim ownership of - anyone can decide to teach a similar course even if the idea to do so came from you. OTOH if it’s lecture notes or extensive slides you prepared, you own the copyright for those and the college cannot legally reuse them without your permission. In that case put your name in big bold letters on the front and add a copyright notice, and it’s reasonably sure they will not try to steal the materials.
    – Dan Romik
    May 21 at 3:45
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    This is touched on in Paul Garrett's answer, but "no compensation" and "they did not ask me to create" suggest that it's your material. If it had been otherwise, they would your course would be a "work-for-hire", and the copyright would belong to the one who paid for it. Or are you worried that they will appropriate your materials despite these factors? Are there red flags that indicate the college is looking to do that?
    – Teepeemm
    May 21 at 11:44
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    What does CE stand for? May 21 at 12:07
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    @user2705196: Continuing Education May 21 at 12:37
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    @DanielR.Collins Oh! I guessed "chemical engineering", but your interpretation sounds more likely. May 21 at 14:10
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I'm going to come up with a different answer.

Sometimes I've taken over a course from someone else. They've offered me their slides, exercises, questions, etc.

Sometimes I've stopped teaching a class, and I've offered my successor my slides, exercises, questions, etc.

I haven't been able to use anyone else's material, and I'm pretty sure no one has used mine. It's not much use - unless it actually tells you what to say, when I write a slide, I have some idea what I was going to say. No one else does, and they can often fail to make much sense of it.

They can't steal your course, your course is in your head.

(My favorite example of this was when we were giving a talk to prospective students. I usually did this course for our department, but on one occasion, a colleague did it instead. The colleague took my slides, and figured that these were going to be slides that introduced the department. What could they possibly say? I was told later by someone else who was there that there was a slide with a picture of my cat. My colleague said "And this slide has a picture of Jeremy's cat. I've no idea why." [I'm sure that it was there for a good reason, or to make a point, but I completely forget what that point was.])

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    Good point. You've assumed that the course is designed so that the instructor has to do some work. This should be true, but is not always. May 21 at 2:48
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    +1 just for the cat - I’ve seen similar things happen.
    – Jon Custer
    May 21 at 2:50
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    I haven't been able to use anyone else's material, and I'm pretty sure no one has used mine. - I agree that often one's teaching material is mostly only useful to other instructors as a preparation guide, but sometimes it can save someone a lot of work. E.g., just following someone else's detailed notes or just reusing someone else's worksheets/carefully crafted assignments. Then the creator of those materials can either be happy or upset(?) that their materials were useful to someone else.
    – Kimball
    May 21 at 11:17
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    @Kimball: The creator’s feelings may depend on context. E.g.: a junior academic on a short-term contract puts a lot of work into high-quality course materials, doesn’t get a contract extension, and the materials get re-used by an established faculty member teaching the course in subsequent years. (I’ve seen this happen.) The junior academic can very reasonably be upset.
    – PLL
    May 21 at 14:05
  • Could this be dependent on the material taught? During my undergrad, for most of my electrical engineering courses the professors shared slides. May 21 at 15:12
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From the terminology you use ("community college") it sounds as though you are in the U.S., so standards/laws are a bit familiar to me:

First, since you certainly did not create that material as a part of your employment, by even broader international standards your eventual employer does not "own" the intellectual property rights to it.

Second, in the U.S., mostly faculty* creations are not considered to be owned by the university, though with patentable stuff there may be some insistence on sharing. But there is the technical issue of "who is faculty?" Conceivably a college/university would want to rationalize that not-so-traditional-faculty are doing work-for-hire, which, in the U.S., would exclude them from the protections otherwise given to faculty. BUT since you'd done the work prior, I'd imagine ("I am not a lawyer") that they'd have no claim.

The more mundane issue of whether they could re-use your course notes, overheads, homeworks, exams, etc., is more dependent on specifics. If you've put them on-line, then of course anyone can literally capture copies of them.

If the question is whether they can somehow compel you to surrender all the material, ... I'd think the answer is "no".

But/and if you've already given the administration copes of all your stuff, without clear rules for its use, it's hard to know what they'd imagine they could do with it. Unfortunately.

Can you clarify your situation?

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  • "First, since you certainly did not create that material as a part of your employment, by even broader international standards your eventual employer does not "own" the intellectual property rights to it." Unless the asker makes a contract that grants the rights to the employer. May 21 at 1:40
  • @AnonymousPhysicist, of course, but I infer from the description that that was not the sort of arrangement. And, of course, I can easily be mistaken. But/and I'd hope that the questioner would know (or, now, recall) the content of the contract they signed, if any, and references, if any, to intellectual property created prior... That kind of thing. May 21 at 2:01
  • One consideration here is whether the course will be recorded. May 21 at 3:07
  • 'since you'd done the work prior' It may be worth OP's while making sure they can prove they have done the work prior, e.g. by getting an RFC 3161 trusted timestamp for some snapshot of the files (and making sure to keep an unchanging copy of that snapshot). May 21 at 7:25
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    @DanielHatton It seems like the history of communication between the OP and the college would make it clear that the OP did the work that the college wants to make use of. He probably can't go back in time and make snapshots from before the negotiations.
    – Barmar
    May 21 at 13:31
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If you do not agree to any contracts and accept no money from the community college, you can be sure you retain the copyright to your work.

Otherwise, copyrights are governed by the faculty contract or faculty handbook. These documents may or may not say that course materials are the property of the community college.

No compensation for all the hours creating the course has been paid.

That is normal in American higher education.

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    "That is normal in American higher education." looks at textbook companies I dunno about that...
    – nick012000
    May 21 at 6:12
  • @nick012000 See here: academia.stackexchange.com/q/19333/13240 May 21 at 7:40
  • I'm not talking about the textbook authors getting paid, I'm talking about all of the additional stuff like Powerpoint slides and course plans that the companies like to try to sell to professors who use their textbooks.
    – nick012000
    May 21 at 7:42
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    @nick012000 textbook publishers are notoriously greedy and incompetent. Many textbooks "authored" by professors are actually ghost-written by contract workers. And many of the ancillary materials are pumped out by third-party editing mills in India. Big publishers are able to collect 50% royatlies because of their distribution and sales networks, not because they actually do any editing/authoring work. The rise of independent publishing looked promising for a while, but it's ended up with new behemoths (Amazon and Apple) supplanting the old behemoths (Pearson, McGraw-Hill, etc.)
    – barbecue
    May 21 at 13:30
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    Note that if you do sign an employment contract (or agree a verbal employment contract) and that contract doesn't mention who owns IP created subsequently, the law of the host country will fill in the blanks, and what it fills in the blanks with may surprise and/or disappoint you. May 21 at 14:16
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They pretty much have to "take it away from you". It's going to be listed in the course catalogue with a blurb. Right now you're obviously the only instructor (for one thing, there's no possible way your untested outline is good enough for another person to successfully teach from). But then it's on the books. If there's demand for it at a time you can't teach it, and if they have someone who probably could, of course they'll offer it w/o you as the instructor. If they need you to substitute for another class at the same time and also have an instructor who could probably teach "your" class, they'll try to do that.

And then from the little that my community college teaching friends tell me, any hint of "prima-donna"-ness is is the signal to quietly get rid of that person. The correct attitude here, from their PoV, is "I'm so glad to get this opportunity and look forward to working with you on it however it works out". Hard-to-work-with genius's can get tenure at a 4-year college.

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You have been getting different answers here because "create" is a rather broad and vague term.

Things like powerpoint slides, written exercises etc. are just part of teaching a class. The school kind of owns them by default even if your legal position may be stronger in theory.

If the overall idea and conception of the course is novel with you, I can well understand your frustration but unfortunately you have undermined your legal position by telling them about it. Because they can always maintain that they entertained very similar ideas long before you came along, and to be honest this may even be the truth.

If you created dedicated software, and particularly if it is innovative in some way or form, you have every right to feel ripped off. Your legal position is complex in this case and you should seek counsel.

But. A word of warning. The community college will not be very rich, but I bet you are not very rich either, and legal procedures are hell expensive. Obstinate clients is what buys a lawyer his second yacht.

So, if you do get ditched as an instructor, your best bet is to take your lumps and let it go. If you find yourself sitting at home, fuming and brooding and losing sleep, you will have to take a deep breath and go ask them why.

There may be a solid reason why you are not suitable. Take this away from the experience and improve on these points.

There may also be a reason that really has nothing to do with you as a person. E.g. Todd had already promised Brad that his second wife could teach the course. This is infuriating, but it is the way of the world.

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    The school wouldn't own any materials the OP created prior to their contractual relationship. I have no idea what you mean when you say the school owns them "by default", but not in a legal sense - there is no other sense of ownership. Finally, you can't copyright the mere idea to teach a course about some subject. May 21 at 13:59
  • Echoing @NuclearHoagie's objections: in the U.S., incidental course materials, including overheads and assignments and such, are not "owned" by the department or university, ... although the department may have a "bank" of old exams or old assignments or such. And unless the contract gave up ownership of the materials created prior to that employment, the employer would not (in the U.S.) somehow automatically acquire ownership. May 21 at 16:06
  • @paulgarrett the point is that all of that doesn't matter unless you are willing to pay a lawyer a lot more money than any of it is worth. The law in theory and in practice are two entirely different things.
    – eps
    May 21 at 17:53
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    @eps, I'm not sure I know what action(s) you are referring to. The physical pieces of paper and/or computer files (presumably on a machine at the questioner's home, owned by them, etc.) are literally in the possession of the questioner. The idea of the course is surely not "ownable". The syllabus? Trickier, after it's published. If the college declares that they're offering a course with the same title, and purportedly a similar syllabus, that does not seem to me reasonably preventable, in any case. I'm perhaps not clear on what the "it" is that various people refer to... May 21 at 17:57

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