Lawsuit debates copyright of teachers’ syllabi

The timeframe of the Sunshine Law request and special nature of the lawsuit are also debated.

A syllabus: intellectual property or public document?

This is the main question in a lawsuit between the UM System Board of Curators and a nonprofit organization, the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“It is an interesting question, and as of yet, unresolved in the state of Missouri whether or not a teacher’s syllabus is their own intellectual property or some publicly shared resource,” MU journalism professor Charles Davis said.

The lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit organization, began when the NCTQ requested access to syallbi from the colleges of education across all four UM System campuses.

The curators granted the NCTQ access to various documents but excluded syllabi access.

The NCTQ claims this violates the public access requirements established in the Missouri Sunshine Law, according to a previous Maneater article.

“… the University denies that it is required to provide copies of course syllabi under the Sunshine Law because the syllabi are protected by rights of the faculty who authored them under federal copyright law,” according to the curators’ opposing statement.

Another debate in the lawsuit is the timeframe of the NCTQ’s information request and the curator’s denial.

The Missouri Sunshine Law states that any information request must be responded to within three business days.

According to the NCTQ’s court complaint, the curators did not respond until eight months after the first request.

“Even if the syllabi fell under an enumerated exemption of the Missouri Sunshine Law, the University waived such exemption by failing to timely assert it within the three-business day requirement set forth in the Missouri Sunshine Law,” the complaint states.

Counsel Paul Maguffee, who authored the curators’ opposition, said in an email that the custodian of records’ initial response came within three days of the NCTQ requests.

Whether the custodian of records responded within three days is still debated. However, this rule is often broken, Davis said.

“The three-business day rule is, to quote Shakespeare, ‘Much ado about nothing,’ in that no one follows it and it is violated with such impunity that it is seemingly meaningless,” he said. “It is violated daily.”

The NCTQ also requested a special setting for the lawsuit, which the curators takes issue with.

In the opposing statement, the curators state the Section 610.027 of the Sunshine Law does not require any unique rules or procedures in enforcing the Sunshine Law.

“There is no basis in law for such a motion or request for special setting to hear it. No statute or rule provides for a motion such as Plaintiff’s, or otherwise provides for any special procedures to apply in actions to enforce the Sunshine Law,” according to the opposition.

Davis said he cannot predict the outcome of the lawsuit.

“There is much about a syllabus that strikes me as non-IP,” Davis said. “It’s a public document shared widely for the purpose of informing students about policies and logistics, readings, class times – most of that stuff is what I would call directory information.”

Intellectual property laws are typically used to protect products of the creative process, Davis said. He used a professor’s writing, schoolwork, creative work or research as examples.

“A syllabus doesn’t strike me as that sort of document,” he said.

Davis said he understands the curator’s side as well.

“I think the university can argue – and quite rightly – that (a syllabus) is a document created by a faculty member in furtherance of their duties as a faculty member,” he said. “If the court opts to take that broad of a definition of faculty intellectual property, then I can certainly see where it could get to that conclusion.”

The trial is set for March 1.

“No one can predict what courts are going to do,” Davis said. “All you can do is read the tea leaves by the tenants of intellectual property law and what we know of IP law and what we know is IP law leans toward protecting the creative product.”

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