IP policy language still a stumbling block for some faculty


The University Senate’s Faculty Affairs Committee is working with Pitt administrators to add better protections for faculty and their course materials into a proposed new University intellectual property (IP) policy. In the meantime, Senate President Chris Bonneau has delayed a vote on the policy to October and is suggesting that faculty at least support the current language, which gives more money to patent and copyright holders than previously offered.

The concern for faculty course materials did not arise before, University Senate Vice President David Salcido told the committee’s Sept. 8 meeting, because the IP policy had been reviewed only by the Research Committee. Faculty Affairs’ fresh review ought to rectify that, Bonneau said.

This topic was brought up again in the Sept. 9 Faculty Assembly, during which Bonneau said that the various concerns about the IP policy have been noted and will be addressed in subsequent meetings in the coming weeks. Now, he said, it's time to make a decision.

“At some point we need to decide whether or not we endorse this policy,” Bonneau said. “Everything has been said and just about everyone has stepped up to this point, which is a sign of a true faculty deliberation.”

In the Faculty Affairs meeting, committee co-chair Irene Frieze noted that the contentious language in the University’s IP policy — unchanged from the version Faculty Assembly approved in July — says faculty own the copyright to their class materials but that Pitt can license the use of these materials without the faculty member’s consent and then owes the faculty member only 50 percent of royalties.

The committee, she said, has since secured clarification from Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for Research. While the University gets an all-encompassing license to their materials, the materials’ creator is still the owner; the license “does not include the right to exploit course materials outside of the University’s academic operations”; and the materials would only be used “for educational or administrative purposes consistent with its educational mission and academic norms.” 

Faculty were still concerned, committee members said: 

  • That Pitt might continue to use a faculty member’s course materials if the faculty member were unable to finish teaching a course. 

  • That a course, once developed, particularly by part-time or appointment-stream faculty — and especially now that lectures are being recorded for online presentation — would be used beyond the time such faculty are even employed by the University.

  • That possessing license to a course would allow Pitt to lay off such faculty and continue to use the course.

  • That these materials would be sold to outside course presenters, such as Outlier.org, with which Pitt is already conducting a pilot program.

Having a license to course materials still doesn’t allow the University to sell those materials, Salcido pointed out. “You can still take that course and sell it to someone,” he said, “so you can teach (the same course) at another institution … You can turn it into some other embodiment, like a book. You still own it, but it resides at the University” at the moment.

Although the University would not likely have immediate license to a course brought here from another University, Salcido said. Such courses evolve and would then probably fall under Pitt’s license, Bonneau said, and “remember, the license is non-exclusive — multiple people can have the license.”

“Are we proposing that it is innately bad for the University to make money off of things you created?” Salcido asked. “Making sure the University can’t let you go and keep your materials, as a strategy, is the main revision (faculty) want.” Salcido said he does not believe such practices are the administration’s intention. Still, faculty members wished to seek assurances that the University will not use faculty members’ course materials to compete with them while they are employed here, or to replace them.

“I think a lot of people are concerned now about lectures — that eventually the University could present a whole course of lectures” cobbled together from former courses, Frieze said. 

“You would make 50 percent of the royalties if that were to happen,” Bonneau responded. “You have ownership of the course.”

A Faculty Affairs ad hoc committee is working on modified language, but Salcido last week already proposed changes to Rutenbar and was told those modifications would not pass legal muster. 

His changes, Salcido said, attempted to restrict the University’s license to the time a faculty member is employed by Pitt, and for a short time following, and asserted that “rights to all other uses, including sale or sublicensing of these materials to parties outside of the University will be held by the creator(s).”

One stumbling block for inserting such new language — Salcido reported from his discussion with Rutenbar — is that agreements with Canvas and other learning management systems don’t allow for course materials to be deleted on a time schedule. But, Salcido told the committee, Rutenbar said that his office would work on an additional statement to be included in the introduction to the IP policy. “It would include language that says (the policy) won’t be used to influence hiring,” Salcido said.

In encouraging passage of the IP policy in its current form — if efforts to add course material protections are unsuccessful — Bonneau pointed out that “faculty had no rights” to course materials prior to the July vote. “It was all owned by the University,” he said.

Faculty members with patents or copyrights now get improved percentages of profit from both, Bonneau added. “There are reasons not to be happy with this” unchanged language about course materials, he allowed, but said “it’s hard to see how we would not support these colleagues” benefiting from patent and copyright rule changes.

“If we don’t do anything, we’re no worse off than we are today,” Bonneau, said. “Working with Rob (Rutenbar) in a collaborative fashion to get more protections strikes me as a good thing to do.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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