An interesting controversy arose recently at San Jose State University, when a professor objected to the fact that one of his students posted source code he had written as part of some class assignments onto the web. Amazingly, the professor claimed that sharing this code was tantamont to plagiarism, since it made the student’s work available for others to copy, and might be copyright infringement. This latter claim seems to have been based on the professor’s belief that, as the author of the assignment, he had a copyright interest in the work of the student. There is a report and comment about this case from Ars Technica here, and one from Inside Higher Ed here. The University’s Judicial Affairs office did not comment on the copyright claim, but it did determine that the student had not violated the academic integrity policy and could not be prohibited from posting his own work. There are lots of opportunities here to elucidate copyright issues and ponder the important values of academia.
As far as the copyright issue is concerned, it seems pretty clear that the professor does not really have a claim here, at least not if all he did was to pose a problem for his students to solve. Ideas, we must recall, are not protected by copyright, only expression is. Computer code is protected by copyright from the moment it is fixed; the Copyright Office considers software a “literary work.” That protection is vested in the author, and no interest is owned by a person who merely set the parameters of the work or suggested ideas which might be used. Patents, which are also available for software, do protect ideas, and perhaps the SJSU professor is confusing the two very different kinds of protection (although there is no indication that anyone has sought a patent). Unlike a patent, there is no need to apply for copyright protection. That protection is owned by the author of the expression.
Which brings me to the most important reminder to be taken from this case. It is that students own the copyrights in the works they create at our institutions. As the digital age offers new opportunities to disseminate scholarship, including student scholarship, we need to remember that students own their copyrights (just as professors own theirs) and formulate appropriate policy to respect those rights and facilitate use and sharing as needed.
On the plagiarism charge, I think it is clear that SJSU was correct to affirm the ability of students to share their work. If open access sharing is thought to be a problem because of the mere potential for plagiarism, all publication would pose a similar threat. And especially in the area of computer science, where open source code is a common norm, it is important for students to learn the value of sharing in terms of the ability of a community to review and improve a scholar’s work, and to develop judgment about when a particular work is ready to be shared.
There are many reasons to share scholarship, and very few reasons to keep it secret. Scholarship that is not shared has very little value, and the default position for scholars at all levels ought to be as much openness as is possible. There are a few situations in which it is appropriate to withhold scholarship from public view, but they should be carefully defined and circumscribed. After all, the point of our institutions is to increase public knowledge and to put learning at the service of society. And there are several ways in which scholars benefit personally by sharing their work widely. The SJSU student hoped that potential employers would see his work and be impressed; how can a university object to that hope? Indeed, it reflects the professional ambitions of most scholars, and they, like our student, benefit in that ambition if they share their work as openly as possible. Openness should be the default for academic work, and closed access only an alternative when there are clear and coherent reasons that justify it. In this case, the student has something important to teach the professor about the important values of academia.
An approprate way to close this reflection is to point to the web site for the Open Student organization, where students are working constantly to remind the academy that openness and public access are key elements to embodying our educational mission.