Distance Learning and Copyright

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_ecs.soton.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2002 21:02:36 +0000

[Inquiry with identifying information removed]:

> I'm contacting you because of your tremendous contribution in the area
> of free-for-use open access of research articles.
> My current concern lies in the area of teaching material and distance
> learning.

I'll do my best (but my only area of quasi-expertise is refereed
research papers, before and after peer review...)

> I currently teach [subject deleted] courses for which I have either
> prepared or am about to prepare lecture notes.
> My university has a policy of claiming copyright for all teaching materials,
> recognising that copyright for books (textbooks or otherwise) belongs
> to the author, except where the material was prepared for distance
> learning.
> My situation is this:
> I currently use very little written teaching material, a few overheads,
> a few notes to myself some talking and a lot of questions.
> Like many other institutions, mine is positioning itself in the distance
> learning market, and very soon the courses I teach may be offered as
> distance learning courses.
> In order to teach these courses I will be required to provide extensive
> written teaching material, over which the university will claim
> copyright
> I am not happy with this situation, and find it hard to believe other
> academics can just accept this. My concerns centre round the fact that
> in writing this material I would not simply summarise existing
> knowledge, but put into my own ideas and thoughts. As such I would not
> be happy to relinquish copyright.
> My questions for you are:
> Do you know of anyone working on, concerned about, discussing this
> issue?

Yes, there are many people. One of the most active and able is called
(suitably) Hal Abelson, at MIT: hal_at_mit.edu
See his video at http://mit.edu/mitworld/content/libraries/scdw.html
Boyle is good too!

And Peter Suber of FOS is also very knowledgeable in this.

> Most of the material I've read seems to be either: non-UK; assuming
> academics will accept this; taking the view of the institutions.
> I know you have initiated Skywriting courses and wonder what your own
> thoughts are on these issues

On the one hand, I've always drawn a clear line between author-give-away
work (for which refereed-research papers are the paradigmatic case)
and author-non-give-away work (such as most books and textbooks), for
which authors want royalties and/or fees.

I know that it takes a lot of time and effort to write a textbook --
time and effort many instructors would not invest if there were no prospect
of royalties or fees. The university never tried to lay claim to their
paper-textbook copyright, nor did they claim a share in any royalties
because they were written on academic-salaried time. We are paid to teach
and do research, not to write textbooks, so if we put more into our
teaching materials because we anticipate that they can also be used for
a textbook that might bring royalties, that's a bonus for our teaching.

Having said that: most instructors (including me) have no interest in or
intention of writing a textbook, and put what they put into their course
materials because they want to. I don't think I would transfer copyright
for my course materials to my university, but not because I am planning
to make any revenue from them -- on the contrary, I want them to be
open-access, just as my research is!

Universities (like everyone else!) are still *extremely* confused and
short-sighted about all these things, both with research publication
and courseware. Yes, they have their eyes on distance-education revenues
(and they need them), but it is not at all clear that the way they will
make those revenues is by making their instructors transfer copyright for
their courseware to their universities! That is certainly one possible
"business model" -- but then they will have to make special contracts with
their staff, hiring them to do contractual writing or video-lecturing
for hire, which is something many instructor/researchers may again not
be interested in doing (and it might be the good ones especially who
are least interested!).

So the universities, in thinking this through, have a few anomalies and
conflicts of interest to resolve yet. MIT -- no small player -- has taken a
very decisive position on this: Its courseware will be open-access:

Is there a danger that if there are no royalties to be earned either
instructors won't bother or MIT will lose potential revenue from the
eventual distance-education market? I rather doubt it:

First, the best institutions, with the best instructors, are the ones
from which students will want their instruction and degrees. So the
institution is far better off not discouraging its instructors'
creativity. But those are just words. Here is something more concrete:

I am certain that in *exactly* the same way that research impact -- the
scientometrically enhanced counterpart of "publish-or-perish" -- has
become a significant part of the academic coin-of-the-realm (with
salary, promotion, tenure, grant-funding, prestige and prizes depending
on it), *so will teaching impact*!

And just as the open-access era for research will generate more, powerful
and sensitive new measures of research impact through scientometric and
semiometric measures derived form the online research corpus -- new
measures of usage ("hits"), co-citation "hubs and authorities," and
many more rich and diverse correlates of research uptake and influence


-- so there will evolve an increasingly rich and predictive set of
teaching-impact indicators along similar lines, quantifying which
open-access courseware is being used, how, and how much, what has
influenced and grown out of what -- perhaps even how it eventually
feeds into research impact!

And with such objective scientometric and semiometric measures of teaching
impact will come the reward mechanisms for reinforcing and encouraging
their production, just as with research impact.

So I would suggest you simply ignore what your university administrators
are noisily contemplating doing at the moment. These are early days,
and it will be the spontaneous creation of courseware by innovative
instructors, and its use by students, that will determine the
direction things actually take -- not administrators fumbling around
a-priori, trying to second-guess creative forces that are beyond their
imaginations! And I'm fairly confident that that direction will be mostly
open-access (along with the teaching-impact reward system it engenders)
rather than coursework-for-hire.

Just keep doing your online courseware. And if you want to keep it safe
from toll-grubbing hands, put it in open-access archives so it's too
late for anyone to try to cash in on it!

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing open
access to the peer-reviewed research literature online is available at
the American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01 & 02):


Discussion can be posted to: american-scientist-open-access-forum_at_amsci.org

See also the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

the Free Online Scholarship Movement:

the OAI site:

and the free OAI institutional archiving software site:
Received on Thu Dec 19 2002 - 21:02:36 GMT

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