Stevens Adopts Copyright Policy for Distance Learning
Calvin Reid -- 1/8/01

As Web-based distance learning programs proliferate at universities around the country, college administrators find themselves in conflict with faculty members and textbook publishers over the copyright ownership of materials developed for online courses. At Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J., an engineering school that launched WebCampus Stevens, an accredited online graduate program in telecommunications in 1998, the faculty has endorsed a comprehensive new policy on online intellectual property that is modeled after traditional textbook publishing practices.

In the world of online courses, university professors are adapting their lesson plans to use online in conjunction with material from textbook sources. At the same time, college administrators, well aware of the highly profitable distance learning market, are faced with balancing the interests of faculty and textbook publishers while they market these courses to potential students or to other institutions and businesses.

Robert Ubell, director of WebCampus Stevens, told PW that the new policy--approved by the Stevens faculty in November--handles copyright much the way traditional textbook publishers have for years. Faculty who develop courses entirely online assign their copyright to the school, which pays the professor a fee for creating the course and gives the faculty member 30% of any fees the school receives for licensing the course to other institutions. Faculty members receive separate payment for teaching an online course. The policy d s not apply to materials, such as digital books, mounted on the Web as supplements to classroom instruction.

Faculty members continue to own their outlines, exams and lecture notes and can use them offline in conventional courses. There's even an "out-of-print" contingency: if a professor leaves a course and more than 25% of the course's content changes, then royalties to the original professor cease.

Ubell calls the new policy "one of the most liberal and forward-looking Web-course policies" in academia. And, Ubell said, WebCampus aggressively markets and licenses its online courses to corporations and educational institutions. Distance learning is a fast-growing market ("over a million courses are being offered online internationally," Ubell said), and publishers such as Pearson, Thomson and Harcourt often act as a kind of sales force for the schools, offering online courses as part of their own educational portfolio or through their own stand-alone online schools. "Under the policy, faculty members are more likely to make money," said Ubell. "An individual faculty member can't market these courses like the schools."

An ad hoc faculty committee, convened by the college, developed the policy. Ubell even conducted an informal survey of about 40 universities with distance learning programs to find out what kind of copyright policies were in place. He found that "51% had some kind of policy, 20% had no policy and 16% were working on it."

"Since we announced the policy, we've received more than 100 calls from schools interested in it," said Ubell. "This is a highly contentious area. We worked with the faculty. Policies handed down by fiat will not work."

Ubell noted that WebCampus Stevens already has a number of agreements in place with scientific societies to offer its online courses to their membership. "Most students today are working people, and very often a real classroom can be alienating. The online business will be a substantial part of our courses and our revenues in the future."