Can homework assignments and rubrics be copyrighted?

I fully support open access text books and other open access pedagogy tools.  I appreciate using someone else’s slides or homework assignments and I would like to make mine available for others to use.

Please allow me to use this blog post to investigate a situation I’ve heard about.  Faculty member A took over a class from  faculty member B and still uses some of the original homework assignments.  In addition, over the last year a good number of those assignments have been modified based on comments from  faculty member C who demanded them be reworded to better meet accreditation standards – their department is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Faculty members B & C who either previously or recently contributed to the homework assignments in the class have demanded that the copyright logo be added to both the homework assignments and rubrics as a means to prevent them from being used by others without permission.  Faculty member A complained to the department about the request but was encouraged to be compliant.

  1. Can a teacher just add “Copyright 2018. Smith, Jones & Doe” to a university homework or grading rubric and assume it is protected? (I thought you had to file for a copyright)
  2. What could the potential benefits be of doing so?  Isn’t this in direct conflict with the idea of open access?
  3. Can faculty member A refuse to add the copyright?

 

 

30 Replies to “Can homework assignments and rubrics be copyrighted?”

  1. This is an interesting question, especially since it seems like they originally gave their permission to faculty member A and only now want their names on the assignments. I also wonder if faculty member B came up with the problems themselves or if they also borrowed them from another previous professor (something I would assume happens quite often for classes that were already developed).

    According to the website I linked below from American University, “Works created on or after January 1, 1978 are covered automatically whether or not they have a copyright notice. In addition, an author has the option of registering his/her work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright Registration gives certain legal advantages to authors who register their works.” (https://www.american.edu/library/documents/upload/Copyright_for_Teaching.pdf) So it doesn’t seem like you have to register for a copyright to be protected, but registering can provide some extra legal advantages.

  2. Robin, Thanks for sharing such an interesting post! I assume that this is a real life example that was shared with you and not a hypothetical one? Though I have yet to teach a course and thus have a very limited amount of knowledge on the subject, I have always assumed that professors teaching the same course duplicate and revise each other’s course materials almost constantly. It seems strange (and possibly detrimental) to expect each new professor to recreate a course (including tests, assignments, grading rubrics). I would think that some some uniformity would be beneficial to ensure that same or similar information is being taught, grading is equitable between sections of a course, and that new professors are able to make use of the wisdom and experience of those who have previously taught a particular class. Copyrighting course materials seems to go against these ideas. I would love to hear more about whether my assumptions on this matter are incorrect or whether the idea of copyrighting is more common than I was aware.

    1. Hi Shannon,
      Yes, this is a real life example. I do think passing along course materials is fairly standard. But I’ve NEVER heard about an instructor copyrighting a homework (much less a grading rubric???). It seems out of the norm to me which is why I thought it was an interesting example of non open-access.

      Thanks for your reply.

  3. These are really good questions. Are faculty B & C trying to copyright the grading rubric for themselves? Usually, I perceive copyrights as a monetary thing; if you pay, then you can use it. However, since I am pro-open access, I’m in support of giving credit to those who made the homework assignments instead of adding copyrights to prevent others from using them.

    1. Hi schen518,
      Thank you for your comment.
      I think faculty B & C are willing at add faculty A to the copyright (since at some level all three of them added content). I think my opposition is why copyright homework at all (or rubrics, which seems even crazier)?. As you state there is no financial benefit to be gained so it seems to me it’s more of a “knowledge is power” situation where educators are blatantly saying they don’t want to share.

  4. Hi, thank you for your blog!

    1. If the teacher/group of teachers have created the homework assignment/syllabus all by himself/herself/themselves then I would say it is fair game to “copy right” the homework/syllabus. Although this is narrow mindedness, it is still fair (according to me)

    2. I don’t think faculty A has any sole right to say no to adding copy right since they are still using inputs and documents produced by other faculty members.

    1. Hi Vibhav,
      I agree that faculty A can’t claim all of the copyright since the assignment/rubric was collaborative. But I also agree that copyrighting homework is anti-open access so I don’t support it.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Wow, copywriting homework and rubrics seems pretty crazy. Technically it is already copyrighted as Meredith pointed out. There used to be the “poor man’s copyright” which was to send a copy of your work to yourself via US Post Office, but that has since changed to basically it is immediately copyrighted to the author/artist unless they sign something that says otherwise. This signature is likely important here, because there is a decent chance that Virginia Tech owns the copyrights to both items. Employers and universities will often include items in their hiring contracts that state any work done “on the job” or using company resources is owned by the company/university. This would be something to look into since those professors certainly used university resources to distribute and probably make their notes, homeworks, rubrics, and almost anything else. I don’t know Virginia Tech’s stance on any of this though.

    I will say though, it is common courtesy to acknowledge the resources were provided/modified from the previous faculty members. Open access is great, but manners are important too. Forcing people to acknowledge your work is abrasive, but it also shouldn’t be necessary. I don’t know the particulars, but I would always give credit in one way or another because my guess is that professors B and C felt unappreciated or used in some manner, and felt they deserved credit.

    1. I agree there is common courtesy that should never be forgotten – you make a good point. I’m not sure the VT has any copyright authority over the faculty members? Perhaps that is true but I’ve never heard of it. I’ll have to investigate.

      Thanks for your comment.

  6. Wow; the inner-bureaucracy & politics of academia will never cease to amaze me and I’m surprised that VT doesn’t have ownership of the work due to fact that they all are employed by the university. At least, that was the case when I worked at UChicago. I wonder if it’s truly an issue of copyright and more of an issue of recognition.
    I also whole heartedly agree with you that I support the free sharing of slides and homework assignments. If there’s an aspect of your work that would help a fellow teacher, we should want to help that teacher.

  7. Hi Corrie,
    You’re right – the politics and drama are unreal. Worse than industry, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s my opinion that the overarching issue was ego more than anything but it has been helpful to get everyone else’s thoughts on the matter.

    Thanks for your comment.

  8. This brings up some good points. Honestly while copyrights are annoying there are ways to get around them. Just reword the slides or cite the original source. I also think the idea of required texts is annoying and not needed. I think a lot of professors do this just so they can be specify problems out of the book. I will say tho I think every text I have ever needed I have been able to find a free PDF version of online. Nice points and good discussion.

    1. Hi Sam,
      You are correct, many people use slight tricks to get around copyright; which brings me back to the question – what is the point in copyrighting it at all?
      Thanks for your comment.

  9. Based on the situation you presented, I feel like faculty member A should have the most say in whether the content is copyrighted. Aside from that, I understand copyrighting a textbook and the questions that are in the back of each chapter but if a faculty member is going to make up new questions, it would be too much to copyright it. However, the questions in the back of a textbook chapter are technically copyrighted and professors copy them all the time and hand them out as homework. So is that violating copyright laws?

    1. HI Deb,
      Good question – I don’t know the answer. I’m glad you brought that topic into the post for consideration, thanks!

  10. Hi Robin,

    So I’ll some feedback from the education setting I know best, which is K12. When I make an assignment, project, presentation – or any other course material – AND I use it in my class it is no longer my Intellectual Property (IP). It is now the IP of my school division. Since I’ve done it as part of my job – which I am paid for – then it belongs to my employer. Imagine if the person who drew Simba for the Lion King tried to copyright that character away from Disney. He could try, but he wouldn’t win that legal battle. Simba’s likeness belongs to Disney, not the person who drew him. Similarly, on sites like teacher-pay-teachers, you have to develop materials to sell on there that you don’t use in your classroom.

    So how often is that the case? No idea. Do people sell stuff on those sites that isn’t their copyright? Probably. What’s the consequence? Probably nothing. School divisions aren’t interested in spending time and resources to curtail that kind of thing. Does that mean it doesn’ t matter? I don’t think that’s the case. Personally, I’m not interested in breaking the law, but to each their own.

    So I honestly don’t know how your situation would play out if there were a legal argument made. My guess would be that the work actually belongs to the university and not the teaching faculty, but that’s just an educated guess coming from a more K12 perspective.

    Thanks for the great post. Very interesting to think about.

  11. Hey Gary,
    Your perspective that VT might own the rights to the homework/rubric seems to be popular among our classmates so you could be right – I’ll check.

    Thanks for you perspective.

  12. Thanks for the post Robin! And very interesting comments. I have never even thought that homeworks and grading rubrics could have copy-right issues. In our department, people often reuse lecture notes of professors who taught before and would generally verbally acknowledge that. And as Deb pointed out, most homework assignments are found in the back of the chapters of books. Let’s say even if one came up with an original homework assignment, (although every problem is invariably inspired from some other) really how big a deal is it, that one asks for copyright of that? And I guess I don’t understand at all, protection against what? What sort of misuse could a homework assignment be put to?

  13. Thanks for the Great post.Interesting example. I don’t see the point copywriting homework. Most of the time instructors take homework from textbooks(some times they change them a bit most of the time they don’t) anyway. The other thing is, doesn’t matter whether it is the same instructor or a different one, don’t you have to change your homework anyway? (if not it’s like this is my copyrighted assignment you know where to find answers… )

  14. Hi Rathsara,
    All good points. I know some professors that do change homework year to year and some that do not – it can depend on the class (if it’s PBL, the answers could change each year if the projects are different). I’ve learned that if it’s a more traditional test taking class there will be copies of previous years tests/assignments available to students online somewhere.
    Thanks for your comment!

  15. Thanks for your post Robin. You raised some interesting questions.
    Before, I was thinking about copyright only in the context of materials that could be used by students. But as instructor, having a copyright on a homework assignment I have made, I find it a little bit weird? My opinion is that may be a recognition of the instructor’s efforts will be fair, especially if he/she spent a lot of effort and created a really original and excellent homework assignment (different from traditional ones). That’s an interesting topic to think about it.

  16. HI Maha,
    I find it a little weird, too, it’s good to see that a majority of our classmates agree!
    Thanks for your comment.

  17. These are really interesting questions Robin.
    In order:
    1. While I think you can add the copyright info to any document at anytime, if you were to sue someone for infringement, you wouldn’t have much of a case without official documentation. (I may be wrong though).

    2. The only benefit I could see is preventing the assignments from being widespread online, where anyone can manipulate and twist the content beyond its original purpose. However, I believe this is in direct opposition of the principals of open-access: to make all information free and available to the public.

    3. This is tricky. If he refuses to add the copyright, it could cause waves at work. If he adds the copyright, it denies the public from the information. However, without any legal documents, the copyright is essentially useless and can still easily be shared, so I would just add it and carry on.

  18. Hi Michael,

    I think your post puts a nice wrapper on the discussion – personally I agree with all three of your points!

    Thanks for your comment.

  19. I view this very black and white. If it is copyrighted, you can’t touch it unless you have permission. If it is not, then it is up to you if you want to get permission.

  20. I can see both sides of the implied issue here.

    If the homework assignment “leaks” for lack of a better word, it can circulate to the point that students already have a technically correct but thoughtful/critically lacking response at the ready. If a professor has to meet a certain standard, there are going to be crucial parts of their work that remain constant throughout the years.

    At the same time, that encourages academic gatekeeping and further commodification of academic work, which is really, REALLY unnatural for a contemporary liberal-arts education, which (on paper) stresses openness of information and critical thinking as opposed to minimal vocational training and memorization.

  21. Great questions. Thanks for keeping them short! I have a few questions of my own about ownership of intellectual property in a university. For example, if a professor’s research is developed while that professor is associated with the university, it, and any profits, don’t necessarily belong to that professor. This has been a point of contention in higher education. While I am on the subject of what I still don’t understand, I know that patents, Copyright, and plagiarism is all different; however, I can’t articulate the differences from memory. Again, thanks for the post.

  22. As a lot of the other commenters have stated, it actually blows my mind that this is even an issue… then again the politics (and pettiness to some extend) of academia will never cease to amaze me.

    Regarding the actual scenario, I guess it’s okay for anyone to copyright their personal intellectual property so I imagine it would matter to what extend each member (A B and C) contributed to the work. From the wording, did C actually contribute intellectually – or did they just recommend it be reworded? Regardless, arnt their additional copyright work around for pieces applied in education settings? Where did the original materials come from – a textbook? Past faculty? Past class? Seems kind of hypocritical to me to just through a copyright on an educationally based work that was largely influenced by past coworkers and an entire field of study.

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