Q&A: Writing professors’ rights: Can the university claim the rights to your publication?

Q: Writing professors’ rights: Can the university claim the rights to your publication/royalties based on your employment at the time of writing the manuscript?”

A: Brenda Ulrich, Partner, Archstone Law Group PC:

“It’s an interesting issue. Under standard employment law the employer owns anything created by the employee in the scope of their employment. And certainly writing and publishing scholarly work is considered to be in the scope of a professor’s job duties. However, within academia there is what is often called the “academic tradition,” namely, that professors and academics own their own scholarship. Most universities will defer to the academic tradition and don’t try to claim ownership of the books and articles their faculty members write – and many state this policy outright in their faculty handbook or other policies. As a practical matter, it also just makes sense: if a faculty member departs for another university, everyone assumes their scholarship and publications will go with them since they will be continuing to build on that work at the new institution.

The place where I’ve seen the issue get murky or divisive is around things like course or teaching materials – both online and in class – which arguably have aspects of both scholarship and straight teaching obligations built into them. Course materials also might receive a lot more support and investment from the university itself – especially for online courses –  such that the university feels it has more of a vested interested and right to use or license them later. In these circumstances I strongly recommend putting some sort of written agreement in place between the university and the instructor so everyone understands ownership and use rights going in.”