When English professor Cathy Davidson announced her move to City University of New York, the question was raised as to who would retain the rights to the massive open online course she created while at Duke.

The Intellectual Property Board, one of the Provost's committees, gave Davidson—who is the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies—the rights to the MOOC titled "History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education" after interpreting the University's intellectual property and online courseware policies written in 2000. Although the policies were drafted during a time when online education looked much different than it does today, its language continues to be relevant, administrators say.

“The revisions in 2000 were drafted with an eye for online education," said Laurence Helfer, the Harry S. Chadwick Sr. Professor of Law at the Law School.
"[Duke] didn’t know what it would look like, but the directors knew it was coming. [The policy] is efficiently broad and has flexible language so that it can be applied to the types of MOOCs that are offered today.”

Duke's interpretation of the policy tends to allow professors to retain the rights to their course materials that Duke funds. Kevin Smith, director of the office of copyright and scholarly communications, explained that the University's interpretation is similar to those at a majority of other schools. Faculty members own the property of the content, but Duke also has a hand in some forms of ownership.

"Duke has a license to enter into an agreement with platforms like Coursera to publish the content online," Smith said. "Other institutions have ownership and give faculty members a license. In a practical manner, both parties have the ability to do what they want to do."

Smith said that although the policy was written in 2000—long before MOOCs existed in their present form—it does not need to be revised because the policy is flexible enough that the Intellectual Property Board can interpret it as they see fit.

Helfer is teaching a MOOC on international human rights law and also noted that the University's existing policy has the ability to adapt to new forms of online education.

Although Duke's intellectual property policy's wording may be flexible enough to accommodate new issues raised by MOOCs, not all peer institutions have found that this is the case. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, have recently discussed making changes to their policies.

Faculty members said they believe Duke's current policy supports their efforts in the classroom.

“Ownership by instructors is essential," said Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the philosophy department and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. "The best professors would not put in so much time if they did not retain intellectual property rights, because then they would worry that others might distort their vision of the course."

Both Helfer and Sinnott-Armstrong said that developing and teaching a MOOC has been a rewarding but time-consuming educational experience.

"I have invested hundreds of hours in the course preparation overall," Helfer said. “I have 18,000 students from six continents."

Smith explicated that the interpretation of the intellectual property policy is constantly adapting to meet changes in educational technology and the experimental nature of MOOCs.

“The Provost made it very clear that the incorporation of MOOCs into Duke's curriculum is an experiment," Smith said. "It has two purposes—the first is to expand the reach of the Duke education globally and the other is to improve teaching here at Duke.”