Columbia’s new intellectual property policy sparks questions

By Anna Busalacchi, Managing Editor

Ryan Brumback

Columbia’s newly proposed intellectual property policy has caused concern and confusion from some students and the part-time faculty union.

In an email to “student leaders” and “colleagues” on June 28, the Office of the Provost announced the new intellectual property policy proposal for the Columbia community, which is in the process of review and approval from the Board of Trustees.

The policy was approved by the Academic Affairs Committee, a subcommittee of the Board of Trustees, on June 2 and will be reviewed by the entire Board of Trustees in the fall.

Sean Johnson Andrews, associate chair of the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department, was on the committee that drafted the IP policy during the Spring 2021 semester, when he was Faculty Senate president.

Andrews has expertise in intellectual property rights and has written his dissertation on IP, along with two monographs and a book titled “The Cultural Production of Intellectual Property Rights.”

“If work that was produced by a student as part of a class got, in one way or another, featured in some sort of promotional materials, then you need to have some kind of blanket IP statement talking about how the college is allowed to use these materials because they were produced as part of the learning process, so that was initially why it was produced,” Andrews said.

Intellectual property is a topic of great historical dispute. In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, for example, President Joe Biden, prompted by the World Trade Organization, broke a common pattern in U.S. policy by waiving the IP patent on vaccines, allowing other countries to manufacture their own. However, large pharmaceutical lobbyists began a campaign against Biden’s decision, according to NPR.

Beyond international politics and medicine, artists are often advised to protect their creativity all the same, because the line of ownership has the potential to be blurred when it comes to an original idea, work or product in high demand. At Columbia, which focuses on the creative arts, intellectual property discussions are especially sensitive.

Andrews said Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David convened the committee that drafted the language for the policy, which according to the email, consisted of “Department Chairs, School Deans, a graduate student, and representatives from the Office of the Provost, the Office of the General Counsel, and Human Resources.”

Andrews said most institutions of higher education have similar policies, and Columbia’s proposed policy was produced through researching other universities’ policies and adapting it to create “security for the college.”

The email from the provost stated: “Under the Policy, students own the copyright to any work they create in fulfillment of class assignments, as projects for academic credit, or in connection with co-curricular or extra-curricular organizations.”

The email also emphasized the college does not seek to own student work, but the policy claims the right to use student work if it is for “educational, promotional, and public relations purposes.”

Kaitlyn Venturina, junior cinema and television arts major, questions the college’s motives for the policy and whether the school cares about promoting itself or supporting its students as creatives.

“If they move on with this new policy in the fall, I feel a lot less creative; I feel caged essentially just because now that I know that my work is going to be affected by the school, I feel like I am unable to express my voice as freely as I wanted to,” Venturina said.

Venturina said the vague wording in the policy leaves things up for interpretation. She wants the school to educate students about how this policy could affect them and ask for permission to use their work.

In a July 28 email response to questions from the Chronicle, David said she does not think student or faculty creativity will be stifled by knowing of the possibility their work may be used by the college.

“In my experience students have viewed the chance to promote Columbia College through their creative work as an opportunity,” David said in the email to the Chronicle. “I also think the situations where we would feature student work in a promotion would be exactly the circumstance where we would be working in partnership with the student, and that the promotional use aspect of the policy will be the exception and not the rule. But I would also like to emphasize that we remain committed to abiding by all privacy laws and regulations relating to student records, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.”

The email to faculty, staff and students encourages the college community to direct any policy-related inquiries the Office of the Provost.

Andrews said the matter of explicit or implicit permission to use student materials for marketing or promotional purposes was an outstanding concern that was left up to the board, which ultimately decided upon only implicit permission.

Andrews said this makes the process easier for the college to use students’ work, especially if the student has already graduated and the college is not able to get in contact with them.

In her email to the Chronicle, David said the college prefers to ask for a student’s permission before using their work and would provide artistic credit. She added that in some circumstances this may not be possible.

The college’s part-time faculty union leaders continue to have questions about the proposed policy and say the college should be negotiating its terms with the union as part of its collective bargaining agreement.

The campuswide email announcing the proposed policy stated: “The policy was shared with the Faculty Senate and the part-time faculty union for comment.”

“We didn’t find out that there was even a committee, or that there was any kind of changes that were going to happen to IP, or any kind of implementation of IP policies until late spring,” said Diana Vallera, president of the part-time faculty union, or CFAC, and an adjunct faculty member in the Photography Department.

Both Vallera and Deb Doetzer, negotiations chair for CFAC and an adjunct faculty member in the Communication Department, met with the provost along with two attorneys from the college May 14, once the policy was already drafted.

“We met but it was a very brief meeting; we didn’t get to really have any kind of meaningful dialogue, any exchange. The college set the time frame on it; it was a half-hour,” Vallera said. “I asked how do we move forward with asking questions and getting clarification? They said they don’t feel they have to answer any questions. It was disappointing to say the least.”

Vallera said immediately after this meeting with the college, in which she and Doetzer were told the policy was in the final stages of approval, she filed a “demand to bargain” letter with the National Labor Relations Board.

The college has a legal obligation to bargain with the union according to the collective bargaining agreement between the college and the faculty union because it is a unilateral change in working conditions, according to Vallera.

After the charge was filed the college agreed to meet with CFAC again July 23 to discuss its concerns and provide additional information about the policy. Vallera said she hopes to meet again soon to discuss the policy further.

Vallera said she is concerned about what this policy means for faculty and students’ academic freedom during a time that is a “crucial cornerstone” for both groups and said she hopes the college did not have bad intentions.

“The college has indicated a willingness to sit down and meet to discuss this, so we’re happy to hear that,” Vallera said. “We’re looking forward to getting clarification and addressing these concerns we have.”

CFAC is in communication with its members, student organizations and the new Faculty Senate President Madhurima Chakraborty, and the union hosted an informational town hall with some student leaders. Vallera said she wants to make sure students have people advocating for them.

“It’s distressing that it happened at the end of a semester as we’re heading into summer, in the pandemic,” Doetzer said. “It’s more difficult for everyone to coordinate schedules and actually have a meaningful time to actually sit down and [discuss] this.”

Andrews said he was not aware of any concerns expressed by the part-time faculty union, but the Faculty Senate was briefed “off and on” throughout the process.

Andrews said because the college has not had an IP policy yet, it is likely that it will need revisions, saying there are “always going to be gray areas.”

One section of the policy states: “For all other categories of work with a connection to the college, employees retain copyright ownership and the right to any associated revenue unless: (a) the work’s creation involved a meaningful use of college resources … .”

Andrews said “a meaningful use of college resources” was an in-depth topic of discussion amongst the committee while drafting the policy. The committee defined “meaningful resources” as resources used beyond the normal amount given to all faculty members in that department.

“One of the things that we had hoped would be in the policy … and I don’t believe it made it into this version, the ability to have a shared ownership rather than kind of all or nothing between a faculty member and the college in those cases,” Andrews said.

Peyton Jay, a senior television major, said he is unsure if the Adobe Creative Suite, something he uses regularly, is included as a college resource, along with other resources that are included with tuition.

“If those sorts of digital resources count as Columbia resources, that drastically shifts what I’m able to do as a student and feel comfortable creating my senior year because I want to be able to own that stuff,” Jay said.

Similarly, Venturina is already thinking about ways to buy her own film resources without utilizing Columbia’s, saying she is afraid to use campus resources like the film cage.

But in her email to the Chronicle, David said the language about “meaningful use of college resources” only applies to employees, not students, stating “students own the copyrights to student work.”

“In the policy the college asserts a very limited license: to use student work for educational, promotional and public-relations purposes,” David said in the email to the Chronicle. “This would allow a professor to use student work as an example of a successful use of a technique, our admissions team to show images of students engaged in artistic creation, and our social media team to share posts about campus activities. The policy encourages getting the permission of the student before using the work, and the use of student work must always comply with relevant federal law about student privacy.”

Jay, along with some other students, said he did not receive the email from the provost. He said he found out about it when Doetzer notified the audio drama club, of which he is the president.

“Just because it’s happening during the summer … all these kinds of groups that are drastically affected, they don’t really get to have a say in things because it’s all happening outside the school year, and so the students are kind of just left out to dry,” Jay said.