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The Coming MOOC Copyright Problem And Its Impact on Students and Universities


by Stephen Haggard

Take a multi-platform digital mash-up of content contributed and remixed by professors, institutions, publishers, students and software, and let revenue-seeking companies distribute it globally. This (partially) describes MOOCs, but it’s also a full-on recipe for trouble on MOOC copyrights and ownership. That there have been no lawsuits so far is perhaps chiefly down to the fact that no MOOCs have any profits for attorneys to grab. Yet.

MOOC Copyright puzzle

Horia Varlan via Flickr

As MOOCs settle into the category of education-business-as-usual, I’ve noticed the arguments about ownership in MOOCs are warming up.

  • Content rights are the top worry for academics. The faculty union at University of California-Santa Cruz kicked off with a challenge to the University in March this year, alleging that Coursera was taking a chunk out of professors’ intellectual property rights to their lectures.


  • Revenue rights are a challenge for college management. An arrangement described in the University of Michigan contract with Coursera, which is known in full thanks to a leak, is simple: the platform is first to see revenue, the University is last.


  • Learners have an issue too: their data. With Forbes Magazine suggesting that one user’s data can add up to $200 of a company’s valuation, it’s no surprise that the MOOC Terms and Conditions usually try to wrestle the rights to use and even own the learner’s data.


Educause helpfully focused the discussion with a briefing paper in October, Copyright Challenges in a MOOC Environment, containing observations from the key thought leaders and a lot of questions (22 by my count) with worryingly few answers. The nub of the legal issue is that MOOCs are legally framed as a publishing contract between institutions and platforms, whereas academic copyrights are vested in individuals who are being cut out of the deal.

Learners are affected by the argument. To illustrate how it affects MOOC learners, consider a recent MOOC I took on the Canvas platform, for example. The content (delivered in BlackBoard Connect) was accessible to me only insofar as the Canvas platform accepted my login. For the time being, it does, but there are no guarantees. On the other hand a MOOC from Wide World Ed allows me to place all my course content, including my own contributions in the course, on my own device. That’s reassuring in terms of ownership, and the content on the iPad during a train journey helps my learning too. Each of these experiences derives from different ideas about who owns the user’s experiences in the MOOC.

The issue boils down to: what type of organizations want to own the MOOC action. A friend at large academic publisher in the UK told me this week, off the record, “We are looking at MOOCs very carefully. They are possibly our next big thing after e-readers.”

This is the crux of it. Many MOOCs treat learning on a publisher-consumer model where content distributors acquire materials to push out to learners in exchange for rights and revenue. Look at the small print in the Futurelearn terms and conditions: the platform will enforce its copyrights “to the fullest extent possible.” I am not sure this is going to work, because modern learning is (arguably) a different kind of contract. It’s a deal between provider and pupil, where a learner commits effort, and the teacher agrees to raise the student’s capacity. Teacher as gatekeeper belongs to the Middle Ages.

MOOC copyright

opensourceway via Flickr

The MOOC ownership rights issue re-ignites the debate earlier this year around institutions passing the ownership of their online teaching activities to full service contractors like Kaplan, Embanet and Deltek. These companies typically provide complete packages including courses, assessment and user management on behalf of colleges. Coursera is increasingly taking ownership of a whole raft of educational assets and processes that used to belong to institutions.

Are such arrangements a net gain or loss to learners ? Free is a nice price for learning, but as the Harkin Report to the US Senate pointed out in 2012 in the case of Apollo Group and University of Phoenix, lower cost courses weren’t really a nice deal for the 60% of students who dropped out within two years — or the taxpayers who subsidized their enrollment.

Educators and institutions do have a choice about who gets their MOOC content rights, their ability to earn revenue and their MOOC user data. In many cases, I believe, all of us are letting go too fast of relationships and rights that we ought to hold more tightly.

Stephen Haggard is author of the UK Government’s review of MOOC policy and literature, The Maturing of The MOOC. He consults for several UK universities on their MOOC programs. You can follow him on Twitter, LinkedIn or his blog.


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