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Who owns the rights to online course materials?

From pre-kindergarten through post-graduate work, people are increasingly getting all or part of their education through online resources. The digital learning revolution has changed the way we teach and learn.

With this revolution come intellectual property (IP) questions. Who owns the content that is used in online and blended courses? Professors at "traditional" universities who use their own books in their classes typically own that work, since they generally created it independent of their teaching duties. Their lectures are typically considered their IP as well -- particularly if they are tenured professors or on track to become tenured.

What about content that becomes part of a university's online learning management system? This content is often created as a team effort among the professor, media producers and instructional designers. Who has the IP rights to that content?

There is not necessarily a "right" answer. Sometimes, ownership is shared. Other times it remains with the faculty. In still other cases, the university owns it.

The content comes in large part from the professor's knowledge, research and work, and they have a right to protect it and ensure that it's not used inappropriately or without their permission. However, the significance of the contributions made by those who make the content available and usable to students on a digital platform cannot be discounted. Neither should the investment made by the university in these online courses be ignored.

It's wise for universities and other educational organizations that provide some or all of their learning materials online to clearly define who has the IP rights or how those rights are shared. Professors and others whose work is the backbone of these online courses have a right to make sure that their rights to that work are protected. A well-drafted contract upfront can help clarify everyone's expectations and reduce the chances of litigation later.

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