Former ASU Professors Threaten Legal Action Against University for Violation of Intellectual Property
Last week, Arizona State University's Governance Grievance Committee agreed to hear a case filed by two professors against the university for violation of intellectual property and copyright infringement.
Jeff MacSwan and his wife Kellie Rolstad were both tenured professors as ASU and taught courses at the Teachers College (formerly the College of Education). They were the founders of ASU's Applied Linguistics PhD Program, where they created the syllabi and related course materials, including videos, activities, and applied-learning exercises.
Last year, the two caught wind that the courses they designed were being used without their permission. MacSwan says he enrolled in one of the online courses and, sure enough, there were his videos and materials being used by a professor he'd never met -- largely without attribution.
MacSwan says he and Rolstad decided to leave the College of Education when it was reorganized, refocused, and renamed. He agreed to work for the College of Liberal Arts and still teach a few courses at the Teachers College through contract and under the guidelines of the Board of Regents.
There was a large demand for his online masters courses over the spring and summer of 2011. MacSwan says he was offered a part-time position to teach them and that he declined for monetary and tenure status reasons.
That's when MacSwan says the university decided to give his course material to another professor.
MacSwan and Rolstad sought independent legal counsel and copyrighted their teaching materials, but MacSwan says they continued to be used by the university.
In December, their lawyer sent a notice of claim (required legal notice that comes before a lawsuit) to the state's attorney general and Board of Regents that called for $3 million in damages for copyright infringement.
"We were betrayed by the university for which we taught for over a decade," says MacSwan. "We were good citizens, and we agreed to take a leadership role in this program. But the university turns around and says, 'hey, we can save a few thousands dollars (by not having to pay our salaries) and having someone else teach it."
The war of intellectual property rights, especially regarding online materials, is a long one with deep roots and heated arguments. In academia, many universities have their own policies, determined by their boards of regents and signed by employees of the university. These agreements determine who owns the rights to educational materials and how they can be used (and reused) by university employees.