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Definition of intellectual property remains in question after UM syllabus requests

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 | 12:52 p.m. CDT; updated 11:59 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 1, 2012

COLUMBIA — The degree to which a college syllabus is seen as intellectual property appears to vary with the circumstance.

The University of Missouri System is maintaining they are and is refusing to give  syllabuses from education programs at the four system campuses to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The nonprofit advisory council in Washington, D.C., is challenging the system's call. The council says it wants the syllabuses and other teacher education documents as part of a national survey of teacher preparation programs.

Robert Bain, a St. Louis attorney specializing in intellectual property, defines it as any creative work considered to be owned by the maker. It includes four categories: patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets.

Bain said a syllabus is protected under copyright law because it can include original and creative material. He likened it to a map.

"The relative location of the boundaries between the states, the shape of the states and the geographic features are not protectable," Bain said. "But the map itself can contain creative aspects, like the coloring, the font, the typeface and the other ornamental features. Collectively, it is protectable, even if the underlying facts are not."

The collected rules for the UM System say any course belongs to the faculty member who created it. This means the syllabus, lectures notes, class handouts, lab manuals and digital presentations created by the faculty member are considered intellectual property. 

"As soon as you create a work, you automatically own a copyright, no other requirements," Bain said. "As soon as you write a poem, as soon as you write a song, as soon as you write a syllabus, as the author of that work, you are protected."

The National Council on Teacher Quality's Arthur McKee said in an earlier Missourian article that about 80 percent of the public institutions to whom the syllabus request was made have cooperated.

Among them was the University of Kentucky, which turned over its syllabuses in 2011. Phillip Rogers, former executive director of the Kentucky Education Professional Standards board, said the decision was made under duress. 

"We have a very solid, clear, open-records law in Kentucky," he said. "If you are a public institution or agency, people can ask you for records and only personal information can be redacted."

Kim Walters-Parker, director of educator preparation for the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board, said public institutions have fewer syllabus rights than private institutions.

"Private institutions are by definition private, so they are not covered by open-records laws in the way public institutions are," she said. "Public institutions are government agencies, so their records are covered by open-records laws."

The teacher quality council made an open-records request for UM's syllabuses and other documents in November 2011. The system denied the request in July. The two continue to talk about whether they can reach an agreement, Robert Schwartz, system chief of staff, told the Missourian in an earlier article.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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