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Comments on copyright

6 June 2010

I learned something from each of the presentations on overcoming e-learning barriers that we saw on our block day, but I have decided to comment on the Copyright for Educators project because this has been a very thorny issue for me at work lately.

Who owns our stuff?

Our work problem was around the ownership of an e-learning package. The content of the course was developed by one of our work units, outlining our particular work policies and practices, and then prepared by an external contractor as an e-learning package.
When it came time to bring the package into our learning management system, the external contractor was not able to supply the files in a SCORM-compliant format – instead, they wanted us to keep using their site to access the files.
After some delay and questioning, it turned out that the contractor had no intention of giving us the source files at all. A work colleague stated his understanding that:

because the IP was owned by the [external contractor], we would not be in a position to require the source files to be provided.

(This was the same colleague who was responsible for selecting, briefing and paying the contractor.) There was no contract signed between the parties, no record of meetings, and no itemised invoices or statements, so it was difficult to argue that the contractor should have been hired under the same conditions as, for example, our contract photographers or writers, where we require all copyright to be made over to our organisation and all original material to be provided to us – in these ways, the contractor has the same rights as a staff member, that is, moral rights only (the right to be acknowledged as the creator of the work, and for the work to be protected from use in a way that would damage your reputation.) As a government agency, we are in a particularly ‘maximalist’ position:

Photographs taken under the direction or control of the Crown: The copyright in any photographs created or first published, under the direction or control of a Federal, State or Territory Government, will always be owned by the Crown.

Source: Copyright Agency Ltd via

(We are good citizens, though, in that any application to make non-profit use of our content is always granted, and we are an important resource particularly for secondary and tertiary course material compilers.)

It makes me wonder: if the truly creative process of making images is automatically made over to the Crown through the government agency, where does the ‘IP’ of the e-learning package contractors reside?

Insights from ‘Copyright for educators’

The team’s wiki defined the terms ‘copyright’, ‘IP’ and ‘moral rights’ for us, and I was glad the definitions matched my understanding. There is, however, the question of ‘form’ (defining what can be copyrighted) which seems a little problematic in my work case – while these contractors did not devise an original interface, or write thought-provoking questions to encourage deep learning, or even write compelling content, they did format the notes from our face-to-face training into a set of Flash sequences – and thus they changed the form of the learning. If we had had a contract with them, could we have calculated the value of these somewhat staid and ineffective sequences? Their contribution did not seem much more significant than when I format an author’s rather tricky Word document for the web – I use my judgment and the available tools to re-purpose an item: does that make me its owner? Does it give me the right to put my name on the web page? (something else the e-learning contractors thought was their right).
In general, the Copyright team was looking at their question from the consumer or user side. They gave a good survey of some of the key questions around digital reproduction, reuse and copyright, but were not concerned with the issues of ownership and access that were part of my work problem.
I am keen, when sourcing more workplace training, to see what we can find that is ‘free for education’, and am hoping we might use content developed under the AEShareNet-FfE licence.

Twice shy

The e-learning contractor’s semi-successful attempt to hold my organisation to ransom – we are unable to host our own packages from this project, we cannot correct the mistakes they have made without paying them more, we cannot update the packages as we change processes and organisational identity without paying them a lot more – is not an isolated example in the industry. The magazine Elearning urged ‘Buyer beware‘: ‘Having a finished LMS module doesn’t mean that you can update It’.
But ultimately they have shot themselves in the foot – this incident has led us to develop a policy to only purchase from vendors who are prepared to deliver the source files and sign over the copyright in the materials to our agency.
And we won’t be buying from that vendor again.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lynne permalink
    14 June 2010 5:13 pm

    Interesting to hear your experience. I have had the same problem – and yes, we learn from mistakes and so should the businesses that insist on retaining ‘ownership’ of source code etc. Open source software can overcome this – but you really need a geek to manage it. The problem does point to some of the anomalies of including software programs as copyright materials – a decision made under pressure from microsoft and other multinationals. The open source movement has always argued that software programs should be ‘free’ for all to use and access.


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