Copyright in course materials

George Paramananthan is a Legal Officer at Arts Law

You decide that you would like to impart your extensive knowledge about a particular subject to the masses. In order to do this, you agree to be a lecturer at a particular institution. The institution hires you on a guest-lecturer basis, paying you a lump-sum for each lecture you present. They leave the details of the course – its content and structure, up to you.

You put in hours of work into drafting the course outline and lecture which you then submit to the institution in preparation for it to be printed and distributed to your students. All is in readiness for the semester.

Then, the institution now decides to change the timetable and will not be offering your subject this semester. They also decide that next semester they may actually want someone else within the current faculty to teach the subject. What happens to all your hard work now? Who owns the intellectual property being the current course outline and the lecture notes?

The Basics of Copyright Protection

Copyright protects ‘literary works’ as soon as they are written or otherwise recorded in someway (for example, in electronic format, stored onto a hard-drive or a disk). This means that ideas, concepts or the information contained in the work are not protected by copyright, only the form in which they are expressed.

In order for copyright to attach to a literary work, the work must be regarded as ‘original’. The level of originality is a low one, as it does not require novelty or any standard of excellence – merely that it originates from that author.

In the usual course of things, the owner of the copyright will be the author of that literary work. However, if you are on staff, your employer will own copyright in work created as part of your employment.

1. Material Form

This won’t be difficult to satisfy. You would have either provided the institution with a hard-copy of the materials, or perhaps sent it to them on a disk or via email. This satisfied the requirement that the work be in ‘material form’.

2. Original Literary Work

The lecture notes and course materials are likely to include: factual or informational content and opinions.

There is no originality in facts. However, there may be sufficient originality in the way such facts are expressed and arranged.  For example, if using your own skill, experience and labour to look at all the resources available, decide how to structure the course, chose lecture content, and decide the particular order that the facts should be presented in the lectures.

Copyright will only protect the manner in which opinions are expressed in the notes and course materials. Copyright will not protect the concepts and ideas that form part of those opinions. For example, if you came to a conclusion in the lecture notes, copyright will only protect the words that you use in expressing that conclusion. Copyright will not give you any exclusive rights over the idea behind that conclusion.

3.     Ownership of Copyright

As a guest lecturer, you are probably not an employee of the institution. Indicators that assist in making this decision include:

  • how much control you have in deciding how to structure the course and what you want to teach;
  • how often you are paid,
  • whether the institution took out tax, paid superannuation, holiday and sick leave; and
  • how independent you are from the institution.

4.     Implied Licence

The course material and the lecture notes that you have drafted will be a copyright protected work, and you will own copyright in these works. This means that you can prevent anyone, including the institution and anyone that the institution appoints, from:

  • publishing the notes and materials;
  • copying the materials for distribution;
  • using the notes for the purpose of presenting a lecture;
  • basing any future lecture or course on the notes and course materials you have drafted; and
  • putting copies of the notes and course materials on the website for any purpose, including distance education.

It is important to note that this will depend on the negotiations that took place between yourself and the institution.  You may have given the institution permission (called an ‘implied licence’) to use your course material and lecture notes for a particular purpose or in a particular way. In order to determine this, the conversations, emails and other correspondences between you and the institution will need to be examined.


After determining what permission, if any, to use your work you may have given to the institution, you should write to the institution, asserting copyright ownership in the course materials and the lecture notes you drafted and provided to the institution. The letter should clarify what they are allowed to do with your lecture notes and course materials. You may want to request that all the original copies of those materials be returned to you, within a specified time. You may also consider specifying that all copies, whether in hard-copy or soft-copy form, be destroyed or deleted.

Some tips

In the future, you are asked to prepare and present a series of lectures for a course or anything similar to this, should consider the following:

  • ensure that a contract is negotiated between yourself and the institution, clearly outlining issues like:
    • ownership of copyright in the materials and notes drafted;
    • confidentiality of the initial discussions concerning course topic and materials to be covered by the course;
    • what the institution is allowed to do with the materials and lecture notes drafted – distance learning via the internet?; and
    • what happens after termination, for example, to the notes prepared; and
  • the use of copyright notice (which consists of the © symbol, followed by the name of the copyright owner and the year) on each page of the course material and lecture notes submitted to the institution.

The issues that can arise in being a guest lecturer will vary. If you are involved in a similar situation, it is a good idea to seek advice from the Arts Law Centre about your particular circumstance before finalising the arrangements.

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