Academic wins a landmark ruling on copyright

June 4, 2004

Canadian universities that acquire copyright of online course material through contracts with individual professors are violating the collective bargaining rights of their faculty, according to a precedent-setting arbitration ruling.

The judgment stems from a Canadian professor's refusal to sign a contract that gave the university ownership of the curriculum she was asked to develop. The incident was brought to arbitration after the professor had been removed from the assignment and the faculty association registered a grievance against its action.

The decision equates academic freedom with a professor's right to own and modify course materials. It also says copyright issues are part of the collective responsibility hammered out in union contracts.

Arbitrator James Dorsey found both principles were put into question when Mary Bryson, a media studies professor at British Columbia University, was "punished" for refusing to sign a contract in the spring of 2002 after being asked to develop the university's master of educational technology programme.

"Because of the importance of ideas to academic freedom and the presumption of first ownership of copyright in faculty, issues related to copyright are part of the core of the relationship between employers and end employee," he writes in his ruling. "They are part of the conditions of employment."

Faculty unions across Canada have welcomed the decision and believe it will help to defend the rights of professors in ongoing negotiations over who owns materials developed for online courses.

Professor Bryson told The Times Higher that she saw the dispute as going beyond copyright or electronic rights. She said it was an issue of academic freedom and that by signing a contract allowing the university to modify and revise the material, her working conditions were being redefined.

She added that in her 18 years teaching at British Columbia, she had never had to sign a contract and that the university was adding to the "hoops" she already had to jump through in getting a course approved. "If we give up academic freedom and everything it means, in principle, then there is nothing left in the university," she said.

She said many universities were trying to coerce academics into a business model but she hoped the decision would be a clarion call for other faculty associations to better define the language of their agreements.

The university has decided to appeal against the ruling. It says the issue is unrelated to collective working conditions.

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