Copyright in lectures

Techdirt had an article that reminded me of an older discussion on the lecturers rights (copyright mainly) to their lectures. While on the face of it the question is easy. Of course lecturers have copyright in their own material. But the question becomes complex when discussing what lecturers with copyright should be allowed to do.

But, it appears that copyright maximalism is seeping into the classrooms as well. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a lawsuit over a note taking service — claiming lectures are covered by copyright — and a professor demanding that students destroy all their notes at the end of the year since the professor claims he holds the copyright.

Michael Scott points us to a similar story, involving a Harvard grad who is running a non-profit notetaking service. While there’s no lawsuit or anything yet, there is a discussion on whether or not the professors’ lectures are covered by copyright

In April 2008 I wrote about Professor Michael Moulton who was using copyright to prevent students from selling their notes.

Standing and talking i.e. giving a lecture is not copyrightable per se, this is actually a good thing as most lectures tend to be the explanation of the works of many others (not all mentioned). A lecture on basic copyright law will include ideas and direct quotes from the law, courts and often other jurists. The nature of the lecture is to educate the audience on a certain issue and therefore cannot be only the ideas and opinions of the lecturer. This use of the ideas and texts of others is neither copyright infringement or plagiarism.

The lecture becomes copyrightable when it is a derivative work of the lecture notes. In other words a lecture given without notes is not copyrightable, nor is a lecture given from notes taken from the public domain. If the non-copyrightable lecture is filmed or recorded then the copyright goes to the person recording (the director).

The “right” of the lecturer to refuse the audience to record is actually not a question of copyright but more a question of labor law. For example, if I were to refuse to let my students record me the question would be one of my refusal to carry out my job as a lecturer. The ensuing discussion between my employer and me would be a re-negotiation of my contract to take into account the audiences’ desire to record my work. Many lecturers I have spoken to are not aware of this position and some react very strongly to being recorded while they work. The audience taking notes is a developed fair use but again the lecturer could theoretically refuse to talk if someone were holding a pen (as with a recording device) but it is doubtful that the academic employer would support this position.

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