A bill is making its way through the Missouri Senate that would require public universities to disclose basic information about college courses. Ordinarily, a bill like this wouldn’t be necessary, but a recent court decision gave Missouri’s public universities cover for keeping syllabi and other course content closed from the Sunshine Law. The professors and administrators trying to keep course content from the Sunshine Law argue that transparency laws harm their intellectual property interests. This argument rings false for three simple reasons:
- The anti-transparency faction at the University of Missouri argues that professors own the content of their courses, while the University of Missouri’s own rules suggest otherwise. According to 100.030.A.2 of the Collected Rules, the university owns the copyright to “works that are commissioned for University use by the University” and “works that are created by employees if the production of the materials is a specific responsibility of the position for which the employee is hired.”
- Even if professors have an intellectual property interest in syllabi, nothing about making this information publicly available would prevent professors from enforcing a copyright claim. If a member of the public accesses a syllabus through the Sunshine Law and then plagiarizes the syllabus, the professor could still sue for a violation of copyright. Making information publicly accessible is not a bar to enforcing copyright.
- Fair use should protect disclosure of public records pursuant to state sunshine laws. Fair use doctrine allows for copyrighted work to be transformed or appropriated, within limits, for certain educational, scholarly, satirical, and noncommercial uses. In other words, fair use protects creators and commentators alike, facilitating discussions about ideas and, ultimately, building knowledge for society. For a publicly funded university system to reject this well-established framework suggests that it wants neither the comment nor the discussion the publication of these syllabus materials may generate. If that’s the system’s goal, it’s an appalling objective for an institution of higher learning, public or otherwise.
I doubt college administrators and university professors are ignorant of these facts. I suspect that the intellectual property argument is just an excuse for avoiding the transparency requirements that every other public entity is subject to. If you don’t want the potential scrutiny that comes with transparency, then perhaps you shouldn’t work for a public institution.