Dead professor’s course alerts faculty to Covid-era rights

Concordia University case prompts caution over possible exploitation of recordings

February 2, 2021
Street entertainer dressed as the Invisible Man, London, England
Source: Alamy

A university has apologised for its handling of an online course that was based on lectures by a professor who had since died, in a case which unions saw as demonstrating the risk of encroachments on intellectual property made more likely in the coronavirus era.

The art history class at Montreal’s Concordia University surprised and distressed second-year student Aaron Ansuini when he tried to reach the instructor, François-Marc Gagnon, and found that the renowned French-Canadian scholar had died in 2019.

“Given that Dr Gagnon is the name and face all over the course platform itself, it naturally seems like he would be the one communicating with us,” Mr Ansuini said. “So it’s just a little jarring that he’s dead.”

The complaint at Concordia drew especially heavy attention because Mr Ansuini is a prolific YouTube vlogger with tens of thousands of subscribers, and he emotionally described his experience over Twitter.

Concordia responded by noting that the course outline properly attributed its “video lectures” to Professor Gagnon while listing Marco Deyasi, an assistant professor of art history, as the “instructor”.

But the university subsequently expressed regret over the episode and updated Professor Gagnon’s biography in the course information provided to students.

Sam Trosow, a law professor at Western University and an adviser for the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), said academics in the country usually owned the rights to their own classroom presentations. But faculty everywhere might want to be more vigilant as the pandemic puts them into online environments where their work is recorded and the legalities aren’t clear, he added.

“Maybe what was just an exception before is something that’s going to happen a lot right now, and people need to worry about this,” he said.

Even before the Concordia case arose, Professor Trosow said he was working with CAUT to alert faculty about the possibility during the pandemic lockdown of their online work being reused without their permission.

“I’m very worried about cost-conscious institutions cutting corners” with recorded content, he said.

Aaron Nisenson, a senior counsel at CAUT’s US counterpart, the American Association of University Professors, said that most American institutions had “reaffirmed their policies regarding faculty ownership of traditional academic works” during Covid.

But the case as described at Concordia, with a course based primarily on lectures from a deceased professor, did seem unusual, Mr Nisenson said. “Generally we would view that as unacceptable under our policies,” he said. “And it would be unacceptable under the policies of most universities and traditional academic practice.”

Professor Gagnon’s family told a Canadian news agency that they saw no ill intent and were pleased to hear that students were still learning from him.


Print headline: Course’s afterlife shows rights risk

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Reader's comments (3)

Early 1980s. Meeting scheduled at a Scottish University with Professor, eminent Editor of a prestigious medical journal. Publisher ushered into meeting room. No sign of Prof for half an hour and his secretary finally comes in carrying files. “Is Professor joining us?”. “Aw nay. He passed away nearly a year ago now.” “So who’s doing the peer review and selecting articles for the issues then?” “Well, I’m just carrying on as usual, as Prof would have wanted...”
When I worked abroad, several of my school specified that any coursework generated (e.g., powerpoints, worksheets, tests) became the school's property for use with future students. This was included in my contract and made clear when signing. Do you think that universities would consider the recorded lectures to be a similar type of intellectual property? Or should it be treated as work that the faculty generated independently, such as literary articles?
Recording lectures from Columbia professor Katherine W Phillips, who died last year, means she is listed as a faculty member in an online postgraduate diploma offered by Emeritus, Columbia's joint venture with MIT and Dartmouth College. Roughly one-third of the diploma is based on graduate lectures she delivered at Columbia in 2015.


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