NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Copyright Protection for Course Syllabi?

October 24, 2014

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the authority to establish patents and copyrights in order to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts." As such, our law gives inventors and writers an exclusive right, for a certain period of time, to their creations.

But how far can the concept of copyright go? Writing for the Pope Center, George Leef reports that a controversy over the concept has been brewing at the University of Missouri. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) sought to produce a study to evaluate education school programs at colleges and universities across the country. As such, the NCTQ sought syllabi from colleges, most of whom complied. The University of Missouri, however, was an exception.

Leef explains that Missouri refused the NCTQ's request, prompting the teacher quality group to file a formal request for the syllabi under the state of Missouri's "Sunshine Law," which is aimed at providing the public with information on state government activities. As the University of Missouri is a state school, it fell within the umbrella of the law. However, a state appellate court ruled in favor of the university, insisting that federal law -- specifically, copyright law -- trumped the state's sunshine law.

But are course syllabi really protected by copyright? According to copyright law export Tom Bell, no. He also notes that copyright law carries an exception known as "fair use," which allows the reasonable use of copyrighted work, including for educational, nonprofit purposes.


Moreover, University of Missouri professor Michael Podgursky contends that professors routinely use course syllabi from other professors who teach the same classes. Podgursky also says that providing copyright protection would limit the taxpaying public's access to what might be important information, such as "[i]f I'm using a Jane Austin novel instead of an economics textbook in my principles of economics course."

NCTQ attorney Erich Veith says a copyright decision in the school's favor would limit the public's ability to access government records and give government agencies an incentive to look for potentially copyrighted material within their records.

Leef writes that the copyright claim is merely the school "trying to avoid possible criticism of its education school by hiding behind a legally risible defense." While those in favor of the copyright defense suggest that the course materials might otherwise be used for "sensationalistic critiques," Leef dismisses their concern: "Professors should not be allowed to use copyright to avoid intellectual confrontations over their courses."

Source: George Leef, "Are college course syllabi really protected by copyright?" Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, October 22, 2014.


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