Copyright laws protect creators of original works by giving them the exclusive right to profit from their work for a specified length of time. College lectures can be copyrighted, but only to the extent they meet the copyright law requirements for originality and tangibility. The copyright for a college lecture may be held by the professor or college, depending on the terms of the professor's employment agreement.
Copyright protection only attaches to original material. Work is considered original as long as some small measure of creative expression is included within it. While a professor's reading from a book would not be considered original, the portions of her lectures that demonstrate originality are eligible for copyright protection if they meet other copyright requirements. Using segments of material copyrighted by others in a lecture is considered lawful fair use if confined to the classroom; however, copyright does not pass to the professor simply because she incorporates this material into her lecture. In addition, if the professor further disseminates the non-original portions of the material by printing or posting recordings of her lecture, she may violate the original copyright holder's rights.
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A college lecture consisting of live, extemporaneous oral speech is not, in itself, copyrightable because the lecture is not fixed in form. Copyright law does not protect ideas that are in a person's mind or orally spoken. Those ideas and words must be written down or recorded before copyright protections attach. If those words are written down or recorded, however, the copyright holder has the exclusive right to perform the copyrighted material as a class lecture and create derivative works of that material, such as an audio or video recording for distribution. Some professors assert that student notes violate copyright law, when sold for distribution rather than simply used for personal studying by the note-taker, because they are based on the copyright-protected lecture materials.
Once a professor has fixed her lecture in a tangible form, for example, by recording it or writing it down, copyright protection attaches to it automatically, with no need for the professor to register the copyright. It is an illegal infringement of a copyright to reproduce and distribute your professor's lecture for a purpose other than your own personal educational use, regardless of whether she has registered the copyright. Before the copyright holder can bring a lawsuit to enforce her copyright against copyright infringement, however, she must register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering swiftly after creating the lecture provides the copyright holder with additional benefits, such as additional damages and fees, if she prevails in an infringement lawsuit.
Work for Hire
While original college lectures fixed in a tangible medium are protected by copyright law, discerning who holds that copyright--the professor or college who employs her--requires knowing the terms of the employment agreement and the law of the federal courts having jurisdiction over that location. Some colleges and universities assert that works developed by professors while under that institution's employment are works-for-hire, for which the copyrights are owned by the institution. However, the explosion of distance learning, which requires professors to produce digital lecture content which may be resold at a substantial value, has heightened tensions regarding who owns the copyright to college lectures.
A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.