Skip to Main Content

Expanded Copyright (self-paced course)

Self-paced course for faculty and staff to learn the aspects of copyright law that affect higher education. It's intense - if you want something lighter, please go to the Intro to Copyright videos on Learnscape.

What is a Work For Hire? It is NOT Your Academic Content

The law says that when an organization or individual specifically employs you to create content, then the copyright actually belongs to the employer. This is called a work for hire. It is clearest when somebody employs a ghostwriter to write their novel, or a web developer to create their web site. 

In academia, it can seem quite unclear. Everyone knows that when you do scholarship and publish or present the results, that is your own copyright, because in our society, SUNY Empire expects and requires you to be doing scholarship and publishing, but you are not doing it for the institution. 

But what about the courses and course materials that you create? Traditionally, in face to face classrooms, those were also your intellectual property, and no one else could use them without your permission. If you left SUNY Empire, you would take them with you. If you worked at two institutions, you might use them at both.

But what about with online courses, which are often collaboratively developed and taught by many? Well, in some online institutions, the institution claims that content as a work for hire. This is not the case at SUNY Empire

We are part of SUNY, and the SUNY Board of Trustees regulations on intellectual property state very clearly that any academic content produced by faculty, which includes instructional content, is the intellectual property of the creator. More than one creator? Then it's shared copyright, but it still doesn't belong to the institution.

So what is a work for hire at SUNY Empire? Any content produced by non-faculty employees, and also any non-academic content that you might produce. Non-academic content could be web pages, marketing and information materials for students and potential students, instructions for your fellow employees on how to perform their tasks, and so forth.

Copyright and Licensing Arrangements For Courses and Course Materials

I have said that when you create a course or course materials, it is not a work for hire and does not belong to the institution. And yet, SUNY Empire cannot function if other employees are not permitted to revise and teach the course, both while you are with SUNY Empire and after you retire. How do we reconcile these needs?

Through licensing. 

One option, which is often used when someone who is not line faculty or an Instructional Designer creates content, is to have a Letter of Agreement that is signed by the content creator(s) and the institution's representative, which does make the content a work for hire. This must be done in advance of creating the content.

Another option, which can be done after creating the content, is for you to license SUNY Empire to a non-exclusive internal use in perpetuity. This is also a document that both the content owners and a representative of the institution have to sign. This doesn't diminish your ownership of the work, or your ability to take it to another institution, or even sell it commercially. It does however mean that somebody else could revise your course or teach it in a different manner than you intended. The protection against misuse of your materials is proper attribution and version control. You should basically sign and date your content. Everyone who makes changes needs to attribute you for the original and sign and date their changes. 

A third option, also available after creating the content, is for you to license your content under the Creative Commons, either as a simple Attribution license, or an Attribution Non-commercial license. This allows SUNY Empire (and anyone else) to use your content, and also provides legal weight to your requirements of proper attribution and version control. 

The truth is, some of our existing courses are in unknown copyright status, and we are working hard to clarify ownership and get longstanding verbal agreements onto paper so that the knowledge is passed down without interruption, even if the people who made the agreements have left SUNY Empire. 

Authorship and copyright

When considering shared authorship of a course, a question that arises is: "Who is considered an author or co-author, and who is merely a contributor?" This is important because authors and co-authors have copyright, but contributors do not.

There are no hard and fast rules; typically the publisher of a work will have guidelines for sorting out the details. But the broad outlines, which are almost always sufficient are:

  • An author contributes many significant ideas and the expression of those ideas.
  • A co-author contributes significant ideas and the expression of those ideas, but less than an author. 
  • A contributor merely contributes ideas, and should not contribute very many of them unless you are going to bring them on as an author. It is unethical (a form of plagiarism) to let someone else's ideas be a significant basis for your work without letting them control the expression of their ideas! And you should always acknowledge contributors.
  • Other staff, like Instructional Designers and Educational Technologists may assist in the expression of ideas, and they are treated like editors, who do not have copyright. 

Always determine authorship at the beginning of the project! Sorting it out when it is time to deal with copyright is confusing and can easily get acrimonious.