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Q&A: Who owns the copyright to coursepacks I create for my lecture?

Q: “My question concerns my coursepack for my lecture, which is sold at our college bookstore. I created it at my home office using my own computer. It contains my own original illustrations, graphics, and charts. I contend that this is my intellectual property while the bookstore has recently made an attempt to copyright all coursepacks in the name of my college. I am quite sure that my college is taking liberties that it has no right to legally. What is the best method for me to proceed to prevent the college from stealing my intellectual property?”

A: Steve Gillen, Attorney, Wood Herron & Evans:

“As a general rule, you have a copyright in any original work of expression prepared by you and that right vests automatically the instant your work is recorded in a tangible medium. Provided the illustrations, graphics and charts in your course pack were created by you and not copied or adapted from some other source, this default rule would vest ownership of the copyrights in you. An important exception to this default rule is known as the work-for-hire doctrine.

This doctrine provides that if you are an employee and if the creation of copyrightable works is within the scope of your duties, then ownership of the copyrights in works created within the scope of your job duties vests in your employer rather than in you. Although application of this principle in your case will depend upon the precise nature of your job duties as a professor at your college, it is entirely likely that the creation of materials in support of the courses you teach would be characterized as work-for-hire and would be owned by the college.

However, many colleges have adopted formal written policies regarding ownership of the various forms of intellectual property that might be created by professors in the course of their teaching and research activities. Often, these policies cede ownership of the academic and educational articles and writings to the professors (in contrast to patents, which are generally owned by the college). Thus, you should look first to see if the college has a written policy concerning the ownership of writings prepared by professors. If not, you should look to see if there is a job description or contract that makes it clear that writing original support materials for your courses is a part of you duties as a professor.

If there is no formal policy and there is no provision in your job description or any contract or in the past practices of the college providing that writing is a part of your job duties, then you might very well take the position that the college has no ownership interest in your work. That said, however, it is generally not a prudent course of action to take a position adverse to your employer without first carefully weighing all of the potential consequences, legal and otherwise, of such a course.”