MOOCs and Intellectual Property: Ownership and Use Rights

min read

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become the buzzword these days.  Besides the interest and the hype associated with MOOCs, campuses are having serious discussions about the opportunities and challenges that these online courses pose.  The EDUCAUSE Executive Briefing, What Campus Leaders Need to Know About MOOCs, highlights a number of key issues for colleges and universities to understand about MOOCs, including intellectual property (IP) concerns.  MOOCs may not be as open as is suggested in the name when it comes to the topic of IP/copyright.  As noted in the Briefing, “Some commercial MOOC platforms have highly proprietary terms and conditions that claim ownership of course content and prohibit sharing or remixing of material.”   

Looking at the Terms of Service for Coursera, edX, and Udacity revealed some licensing language that colleges and universities should be cognizant of when contemplating joining a MOOC.  Note that these sites were last accessed on April 5, 2013.

On the use of material on these sites

Each provider establishes its own proprietary claim about its material and the use of it.

Coursera – Terms of Service

Permission to Use Materials

All content or other materials available on the Sites, including but not limited to code, images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, audio and video clips, HTML files and other content are the property of Coursera and/or its affiliates or licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under the United States and foreign laws. In consideration for your agreement to the terms and conditions contained here, Coursera grants you a personal, non-exclusive, non-transferable license to access and use the Sites. You may download material from the Sites only for your own personal, non-commercial use. You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material. The burden of determining that your use of any information, software or any other content on the Site is permissible rests with you.

edX – Terms of Service

Your Right to Use Content on the Site

Unless indicated as being in the public domain, the content on the Site is protected by United States and foreign copyright laws. Unless otherwise expressly stated on the Site, the texts, exams, video, images and other instructional materials provided with the courses offered on this Site are for your personal use in connection with those courses only. MIT and Harvard aim to make much of the edX course content available under more open license terms that will help create a vibrant ecosystem of contributors and further edX's goal of making education accessible and affordable to the world.

Udacity -Terms of Service

License to use the class sites and online courses

Except as otherwise expressly permitted in these Terms of Use, you may not copy, sell, display, reproduce, publish, modify, create derivative works from, transfer, distribute or otherwise commercially exploit in any manner the Class Sites, Online Courses, or any Content. You may not reverse-engineer, decompile, disassemble or otherwise access the source code for any software that may be used to operate the Online Courses.

Subject to your compliance with these Terms of Use, Udacity hereby grants you a freely revocable, worldwide, non- exclusive, non-transferable, non-sublicensable limited right and license (a) to access, internally use and display the Class Sites and Online Courses, including the Content, at your location solely as necessary to participate in the Online Courses as permitted hereunder, and (b) to download the Educational Content (as defined below) so that you may exercise the rights granted to you under Section 7 below.

The language on the access and use of the materials on these sites varies somewhat on level of restrictiveness.  edX seems to make an attempt at openness by saying that its goal is to “create a vibrant ecosystem of contributors” by using “open license terms.”  However it does not specify what these are or where one can find them.   It is clear that each MOOC owns the content and carefully licenses to the user the terms of access and use of it.

User created content

What happens to users’ own work?  Each provider sets out very clear language about how they license user produced work.


User Material Submission

With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content.


License Grant to edX

By submitting or distributing User Postings to the Site, you hereby grant to edX a worldwide, non-exclusive, transferable, assignable, sublicensable, fully paid-up, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to host, transfer, display, perform, reproduce, modify, distribute, re-distribute, relicense and otherwise use, make available and exploit your User Postings, in whole or in part, in any form and in any media formats and through any media channels (now known or hereafter developed).


User Content

With respect to any User Content you submit to Udacity (including for inclusion on the Class Sites or Online Courses) or that is otherwise made available to Udacity, you hereby grant Udacity an irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty- free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content on the Class Sites or in the Online Courses or otherwise exploit the User Content, with the right to sublicense such rights (to multiple tiers), for any purpose (including for any commercial purpose); except that, with regard to User Content comprised of a subtitle, caption or translation of Content, you agree that the license granted to Udacity above shall be exclusive.

It is evident across all three providers that they “own” any user-generated content via the license.  In other words, by participating in a course the user agrees to grant each provider a sweeping license (note that each company utilizes basically the same language) to do what they want with the user’s content. 


Higher education should pause and reflect on these restrictive licensing terms and the implications for the academic enterprise that has been traditionally built on creating and sharing knowledge as a core value of the teaching and learning mission.  In today’s remix learning culture, what does it mean when users have to give up their IP rights to participate in a MOOC?  When sharing is restricted?  The licenses show that these companies are quite proprietary about the rights for use of their content, but are broadly sweeping in claiming rights for user-generated content.  MOOC licenses, to date, are blurring the lines between traditional educational values and the commercial enterprise.  These are some of the challenging issues that colleges and universities need to consider as MOOCs become more pervasive.

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor and report on this issue.