Intellectual property encompasses the intangible works of the human intellect.

Stories, songs, art—these properties are from being concrete as physical properties go. As immaterial as they may seem, it’s funny how easy it is for people to copy or ‘steal’ them.

So in 1970, the United States passed the Copyright Act of 1790 to secure authors with their rights to print, reprint, and publish copies of their works for a specific duration.

Two centuries later, much has happened as far as content is concerned. With the advent of the digital age—books are not just printed on paper, songs are not just heard from the radio, art is not just viewed at a museum.

Even learning does not have to be confined within the four corners or a classroom. The Internet is a world of its own, where people can share and appreciate many things. This unlimited exchange of information is often what makes intellectual stealing so rampant.

As e-learning courses are rich in content, many employers find it a best practice to own the rights to it.

But copyright protection is already quite broad and complex as it already is, and for many people—confusing. Here are some frequently asked questions about copyright protection in e-learning content:

Who owns the copyright?

It is standard practice for a developer and employer to enter into a contract before e-Learning content is employed.

Such contract states that the entirety of the content will be created for the employer, and is thus their intellectual property. The developer waives any ownership and rights to the content, and only the employer may enforce copyright laws.

However, this may not be the case at all times. Some employers may permit e-learning developers to utilize parts of the content for their professional portfolio only and not for resale.

It all depends on the preferences of the employer and the agreements set forth between the two parties.

On another note, a developer may own exclusive rights to the material if it was made for their own usage, created on their own time, or produced pro-bono. In any of these scenarios, the material is protected under a Creative Commons License.

What is Creative Commons?

The Creative Commons is a non-profit, public copyright license maker that allows free distribution of material that is not copyrighted.

An e-content developer may use an image with a CC license (or just CC) in developing e-learning content. Through the CC license, the owner of the image has given the developer permission to share and use it to create new content.

In this regard, we can say that a Creative Commons provides the developer with some flexibility in, for instance, only allowing non-commercial distribution of the image used. This further protects the original owner of the image from people who may redistribute the image (found in the e-learning content) for commercial purposes.

Creative Commons, at the moment, only offers images, but the organization has planned on expanding its database to include other multimedia elements such as audio and texts.

When can e-learning content be shared?

You may find the need to use content produced by your fellow learners, or content found on the Internet or the public domain.

It’s easy to download or take screenshots of the content, but can you do so without having a brush with the Copyright Act? Or if you’re anywhere else around the world, will you get fined for violating their intellectual property law?

The answer is yes, but with some limitations.

A lot of copyrighted e-content provides the original creators with rights for a limited time, usually 50-100 years. That’s not so bad, isn’t it?

Once the material makes its way to the public domain, the creators may still own the rights to it but it becomes limited by the guidelines on ‘Fair Use’.

What is Fair Use?

Under the Fair Use guidelines, the original e-content can be—in full or in part—be reproduced, copied, or shared without the creator or developer’s permission. However, using such material must not be done in an unfair or damaging manner to the original creator.

If you’re unsure if a certain image, video, or text constitutes fair use or otherwise, you can use a free Fair Use online evaluator to help you assess if you are indeed using the material ‘fairly’. The result can also be used as proof to support your fair use of the material if in case a future dispute arises.

What should I do when my copyrighted content is used unlawfully?

If you come across your copyrighted digital content on the Internet, you may request for legal removal from the search engine or the webpage owner. After all, they are required to offer such services to protect a creator’s copyrights.

What should I do when I get accused of copyright infringement?

When an individual, entity, or organization alleges you of infringing their copyrighted material, you may file a counter-claim as provided for by the US Copyright Act. A lot of e-learning content hosts offers this opportunity.

This unfortunate scenario brings us to the next question—

Are copyright lawsuits expensive?

Intellectual property lawsuits are very costly, wearisome, and time-consuming—but very much avoidable with careful planning and decision-making. No organization wants to be caught in between a legal battle, and more so if it concerns intellectual property violations.

It is highly recommended that the company lawyer oversees the agreement between the employer and the developer. This ensures that the agreement will not cost them any future pitfalls.

Whether it’s a photo, video, quote, or your entire e-learning content distributed unlawfully by someone else, copyright lawsuits can be very dragging and exhausting. Being the accused party doesn’t make it any easier, either.

Will sharing content:

Violate any of your business policies and partner agreements? Affect the organization’s brand and name in a negative light? Put employers, customers, and users at legal risk? Violate copyright law?

These are just some of the considerations you should take into account in producing e-learning content. The sad truth is, determining how much of the content has been illegally used is a gray area. Does your e-content match 1%, 5%, or 50% of another creator’s work? Copyright lawsuits can be rather grueling.

Accountability, in the part of the creator, should be best practice. After all, copyright—literally meaning the right to copy—encourages creativity without compromising a creator’s intellectual property.