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WASHINGTON -- Intellectual property battles in the MOOC age are a “last stand” in the fight for academic freedom, a longtime evangelist of the topic told university professors here Wednesday.

If faculty lose that fight, “being a professor will no longer be a profession or a career,” Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, said at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors, of which he was formerly the president. “Higher ed will be service industry, that’s it.”

MOOCs – or massive open online classes championed by many as a way to democratize education and lower costs, and criticized by others for what they see as the courses’ potential to diminish educational quality and supplant the role of the professor – and other online education initiatives have forced an alliance between professors across disciplines, Nelson said, in their growing concerns about intellectual property and academic freedom.

Professors whose work leads to inventions have long had to negotiate patent-related intellectual property agreements with their brick-and-mortar institutions, Nelson said, and that intensified in 2011 following the U.S. Supreme Court decision Stanford v. Roche, which said that inventions are first vested with the inventor, not the institution (in response, institutions including those in the University of California system strengthened language in future assignment of present patent rights agreements with faculty). Now, he said, scholars who “like me, just write stuff,” may be under pressure to sign away ownership of original content for online course offerings. “Copyright, I think, is going to be increasingly under assault – it’s very clear from what’s happening across the country for online teaching materials.”

The  University of Pennsylvania, for example, is drafting a noncompete agreement for its faculty, prohibiting them from designing courses for outside educational entities. “The logic in that does not limit itself to online courses,” he added, saying it’s a slippery slope until the ownership of books or even honorariums comes into question.

“There’s no need for universities to own the online course you create,” Nelson said. “All the university needs is a contract from you saying they can use it in different ways.” And that doesn’t exclude profit-sharing, he added, as university resources often are involved in the creation of content or product; after all, “it’s not about the money,” but principle.

“I made it, it’s mine – it’s my business what happens to it,” he said. “If the university was deciding what the future of was of something that I’d written, that would eviscerate the whole thing.”

Nelson said intellectual property issues and recommendations for action will be discussed in his new report on faculty concerns, to be published by the AAUP and distributed by University of Illinois Press by the end of the year (Nelson is a past president of the AAUP). Those recommendations will be governed by the idea that academic freedom “goes the distance, from the idea to the thing itself,” he said, and protections for it should be part of collective bargaining agreements – even, perhaps at the expense of salary increases. Select recommendations also will be available on the AAUP’s website by fall, he said.

Despite his concerns, Nelson said MOOCs aren't all bad; it's their potential to wholly transform higher education for better or worse that must not be taken lightly. And faculty views on MOOCs and intellectual property are mixed: the faculty union at the University of California at Santa Cruz recently raised concerns about faculty who would willingly sign away their intellectual property rights in order to teach courses on the MOOC provider Coursera, for example.

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