by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef’s latest column for Forbes probes a recent court ruling that treats a professor’s course syllabus as copyrighted material.
College syllabi are handed out en masse at the beginning of a course for students. Sometimes they’re kept and carefully followed; sometimes they’re tossed away when the student decides not to take it after all. Professors often post their syllabi online. They are not treated like creative works.
Therefore, the idea that syllabi are the copyrighted property of the professor seems far-fetched. The idea that the university that employs the professor must refuse requests for copies of them under a state’s “Sunshine Law” seems even more so. But that is exactly the situation in a dispute involving the University of Missouri and the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).
As a part of a national study meant to evaluate education school programs – the training future teachers get in college – NCTQ sought the syllabi from numerous institutions. Most schools cooperated, if grudgingly. (You can read about NCTQ’s analysis of education schools and programs here.)
The one that absolutely refused was the University of Missouri. That caused NCTQ to take the further step of formally requesting the syllabi under the state’s Sunshine Law, which is supposed to let the public know what government and governmental institutions are up to. The university still refused, so NCTQ sued.
So far, NCTQ has lost.
On August 26, a Missouri appeals court held that course syllabi are protected by federal copyright law. That trumps the state’s Sunshine Law, so the court ruled that the university is correct in refusing to allow NCTQ or anyone else to have copies. NCTQ will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Missouri.