Intellectual Property, Copyright, and Harassment: Navigating the Murky Legal Waters of Online Teaching

If you teach online, here’s a simple quiz for you:

  • Are you familiar with your college’s intellectual property policy?
  • Do you know if you own the class material you have created?
  • Do you have permission to use all copyrighted materials you use regularly?
  • Do you know how to prevent defamation and harassment issues online?
  • Do you have a disability expert on campus that regularly assists in the development of online materials so that you do not violate disability guidelines?

If you answer “no” to any of the questions, you might be at risk for a lawsuit, says Rob Jenkins, associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College.

In a recent online seminar A Legal Primer for Online Instructors, Jenkins and Debi Moon, JD, assistant vice president of educational affairs at Georgia Perimeter College, discussed the top legal issues for online faculty and how they can limit their exposure.

Consider the following scenario: You are an online professor who has produced an award-winning online course and now want to sell your online materials to a large publishing house. Does your college have any rights to the material?

The answer? It depends.

What the courts would look at is whether your college has a formal policy that spells out intellectual property rights and whether you signed a contract regarding ownership rights at the start of your employment.

“Let me tell you what the general rule is,” says Moon. “If you created your materials in your office, using nothing but what’s called the ‘incidental use of college property,’ and that means using your [office] computer, more than likely, unless you had a contract or unless it said something in your intellectual property policy, you actually own all the rights to those materials.”

While that sounds cut and dried, there are also exceptions. For example, if you were paid a stipend beyond your salary to create the materials, or given a reduced workload, then the school likely will be given at least some ownership to the materials, Moon says. Moreover, if the creation is a “work for hire” as agreed in writing before work begins, then the college has complete ownership of the work, she says.

The best thing is to know your rights.

“The first thing you need to do, if you’re not familiar with exactly what your college’s intellectual property policy says, is go download a copy.” says Moon. “You might be surprised to find out, as I often am, that colleges sometimes don’t have a policy on intellectual property. I’m hoping yours does, so go download it and if you have questions about it, you need to talk to your chair, dean or your VPAA and find out exactly what your rights are. And I would insist, if you have any doubts, get it in writing that you own the rights to your material.”

Other scenarios covered during the seminar involved computer use policies, harassment and defamation issues, social media and privacy concerns, ADA guidelines, and finally copyright issues, which Jenkins says is probably the least understood area in online education.