The content of online courses is intellectual property. Does it have significant value? If so, who owns it? If it is the college or university, can the value be captured for the benefit of the school?
These are important considerations that will concern us at this point in our discussion of institutions’ alternative responses to disruptive technological change.
It is clear that most institutions will want to own the intellectual property embodied in online courses created by their faculty members. Traditionally, the content of a textbook belonged to the author, not to the college or university at which he or she was employed. This remains the case today at most schools.
But leading schools, including, for example, Harvard, have asserted that any content placed online is the intellectual property of the institution, not the author. This appears to some faculty members as an outright grab of property which is rightfully theirs. The universities point to the ordinary practice in business where anything created by an employee in the process of her or his work for the company belongs to the company, not to the individual.
The result is conflict between faculty and administrators over intellectual property included in online courses. Reports of conflicts of this nature at several schools have been made in the public media. Many other conflicts are likely to have gone unrecorded. Generally, the conflicts seem to have been resolved, practically if not formally, by the institutions insisting on their ownership of online content and the faculty obtaining in return a considerable reduction in the ambition of administrations to have online courses built. The result it would seem is a pyrrhic victory for administrators – they got what they want in the ownership of intellectual property online but the consequence is that there will be much less intellectual property created than might have been.