who owns syllabi at UNC-Chapel Hill?

Starting this year, in the wake of a recent academic integrity scandal, all UNC-Chapel Hill departments are required to maintain electronic files of all syllabi currently in rotation. The documents are collected from individual instructors via e-mail or uploaded to Sakai, our course management system. This seems to me like an opportunity: why not develop a tool to allow instructors or departments to upload the syllabi to a central repository, maybe even assign some basic metadata at ingest, and then draw on that for the Seeing Syllabi tool? Or barring that, simply ask each department to provide us with their files each semester to add to our own database?

There are few technical barriers to implementing such an approach. In fact, the most significant obstacle is the as yet incompletely answered question of who owns these documents. Who has the right to make the decision to donate a department’s syllabi to the Seeing Syllabus corpus or utilize the central repository? Do the departments even own them? Do the faculty members? Or does the University own them, since we draft them under its employ? Can the Dean preempt the departments and faculty and mandate the documents’ release to a UNC project? Would that violate someone’s copyright, or maybe that would be considered fair use? I met with Gunnar Wieboldt, Associate University Counsel here at UNC-Chapel Hill, to learn what I could about UNC’s policy on the ownership of course syllabi. Fascinating stuff. Here is some of what I learned:

UNC-CH’s copyright policy specifically exempts the products that faculty and researchers create while in UNC’s employ from the typical work-for-hire provision that grants ownership of any works created by an employee for an employer to that employer. (Staff members’ products, on the other hard, are still considered work for hire.) At UNC, faculty retain the copyright to all the work they create at UNC, including teaching materials. These types of work are referred to as Non-Directed Works. But UNC reserves the right to use those materials within the bounds of University projects and purposes. I believe this is a fairly common approach, at least among major institutions. From UNC’s language on faculty ownership of Non-Directed Works:

“The creator of such a work shall own the work unless it is a Traditional or Non-Directed Work Involving Exceptional Use of University Resources, a Directed Work, a Sponsored or Externally Contracted Work requiring University ownership of copyright, or a Work for Hire (defined below.) As a condition of employment, faculty and EPA non-faculty creators of a Traditional or Non-Directed Work shall be deemed to have granted the University a non-exclusive, non-transferable, royalty-free license to use the work for the University’s own educational or research use unless such a license will impede scholarly publication or similar activities.” [Italics mine.]

It’s important to note that copyright status can differ between and possibly even within syllabi. If it ever comes down to it, what matters is the proportion of creative expression—basically, passages of the instructor’s original prose—to things like lists of readings, schedules, and more or less standard course policies. For example, even the most well-curated and unique list of readings may not be copyrightable. Assignments, course descriptions, etc., would be. So some syllabi may not be copyrightable at all. Unfortunately, those are probably the ones that are least useful to researchers.

No one has attempted an Open Access or FOIA request to obtain UNC syllabi yet. At the moment, the University considers syllabi to be faculty members’ creative expression/intellectual property, not public documents—so technically, for use outside the University, permission would have to be obtained at the faculty level, not the institutional level. However, rulings like the 2013 decision in NCTQ vs. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities may challenge that. (See my post on open access for details on that one.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *