Avoiding Ineffectual Property Rights

You may know already that Sunday, 26th April is World Intellectual Property Day (1) . Whether you regard this day of the week as one of rest or of work may depend on your cultural outlook or beliefs. Or you may see it simply as the end of one week or the start of another. What is more certain is that intellectual property (IP) and intellectual property rights (IPRs) are an important issue in any context and increasingly so in an online information age.

Yet, in some situations today, including in academia, IPRs might be seen as ‘the elephant in the room’. Something, it seems, that few people want to acknowledge or manage effectively, when faced with career-enhancing opportunities for publication, presentation and dissemination, whether online or offline. However, an awareness and understanding of IPRs and the issues involved arguably is a vital personal competence in the academic skill set.

A few years ago, in a primarily print-based era, these issues were perhaps simpler, more limited in extent, more easily understood, more easily dealt with, and located in more formal work and employment structures. Now, however, it is much more complicated, with complex multimedia products and diverse modes of delivery to mention just two factors.

This issue is no longer just about copyrights as such, but other forms of IPRs as well, such as performance and design rights — and not forgetting a creator’s moral rights. And also the impact of diverse contextual realities created by advances in e-learning and learning technologies and by changing work practices.

These issues today may not just be about what other people might do with or to ‘your’ material; perhaps just as importantly, it may be about what ‘you’ can or cannot do with your own material in alternative situations. So, some observations on IPRs to consider, with the caveat to consult and seek advice when necessary:

“Create it, own it” (well, at least initially) – In creating something, you as the originator, may own or share some or all of the IPRs that arise. What happens then will depend on the situational context (eg employment/supply contract, role/job description), circumstances and intended use, and may differ according to the type of rights involved. So it is useful to think about these issues before, not after, the work is created.

“Assert it, don’t lose it” – Take pride in what you have created, and assert any rights due at the outset – you can always re-assign them later, if that is appropriate. Brand it – don’t keep it anonymous. Provide proper metadata and file properties, so that there is a clear imprint. Protect it appropriately. Negotiate, rather than defer.

“Assign by design, not by default” – If you choose to sign re-assign the rights in what you have created, do so as a matter of conscious and deliberate choice, not indifference or ignorance. Think through and understand the implications, both for the present and for the future.

“License it, don’t surrender it” – Where the option is available, consider a license to use, rather than assigning your rights to another party. Where that option is not evident, then suggest it. That way, you may get to keep the underlying rights in your work, retain the freedom to use it as you might wish and still get published.

“Finish it, keep it, submit it” – Some publishers and conference organisers seek to appropriate all rights in material submitted for publication or presentation. So make sure that you have a clean pre-publication version that you can retain for inclusion in your own courses, or posting in a virtual learning environment, institutional repository or content management system. Then submit a ‘sufficiently different’ version for external publication. This may involve more editorial work (up against a deadline again?), but is a useful planning discipline.

“Think long, act short” – Think beyond the immediate possibility of publication or presentation, to what other uses and opportunities might emerge down the line. If you might want to use, re-use, reversion or repackage material in different contexts and/or for different purposes, then you need the rights to be able to do so without further negotiation or payment, even if further credits or attributions may be needed.

“Is Creative Commons an answer?”– A lot of attention is now given to the use of various forms of Creative Commons licenses. These may, or may not, be the answer to your needs, depending upon the production context, the nature of the material, the aims and possible uses. However, these forms of rights are increasingly relevant, for example, to open courseware and other educational resources as well as some conference materials.

“If you don’t know, find out” – Where legal matters are involved, it is best to consult with colleagues and to take advice. There are many useful general IPR guides available on the web, but remember that IP law may differ from country to country and context to context. In the UK, JISC Legal, for example, provides some excellent resources on IP matters related to e-learning.

Roger Dence, 24th April 2009

1 The aims of World IP Day are:

· to raise awareness of how patents, copyright, trademarks and designs impact on daily life;

· to increase understanding of how protecting IP rights helps promote creativity and innovation;

· to celebrate creativity, and the contribution made by creators and innovators to the development of societies across the globe;

· to encourage respect for the IP rights of others.

Source: http://www.wipo.int/ip-outreach/en/ipday/, accessed 23rd April 2009

Leave a comment


  1. David

     /  April 24, 2009

    A topic worth expanding, Roger. I may add something of my own in due course, because I’m pondering the question of open sources and the credit crunch. More later!

  1. Think long, act short! * « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog

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