When your professor is dead, but teaches anyway

So Brian O’Blivion is teaching classes in 2021, seems par for the course.


Just type “DEADPROFDISCOUNT” to receive 80% off!


But no one needs to arts to live! Duh! /s



For those administrators who insist that a university is a business, do they think that a lecture series recorded by a deceased faculty member is wholly owned by the school? Wouldn’t the professor and his family have an absolute and ongoing IP interest in the series, and wouldn’t the school owe royalties to the survivors?


My question is, if I die and the university keeps offering classes under my name, who is getting the paycheck?


Funny how students are cheated of the latest info if textbooks aren’t reissued every year, but professors? Turns out you can recycle those.


My guess, with no actual knowledge, is that it’s probably not clearly defined in any of the contracts. At least not for past ones. Anyone signing a brand new contract is probably starting to call this out and make it clear.

When a teacher produces something for a class, a lecture, study material, labs, syllabus, tests, grading standards, whatever else goes into delivering the class, who owns all that stuff? Is it even the same for all of the different items or are their different rules for different things?

When items were ephemeral and gone after the class, it didn’t matter as much. Who cares who owns the “lecture performance” when it’s only around for 90 minutes and then gone forever.

The tenured and adjuncts above, paid for the year or by the class. Each produces incremental stuff in the process of delivering the instruction. That’s the root question, who owns all that stuff that’s created along the way?

Say a sales guy creates a brochure as part of selling something. When he leaves, can the company keep using his brochure? Was that a personally owned item or company asset?

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So, you don’t know, but you know. K.

I get paid by the class because I am an adjuct. Tenure track or tenured professors or even most lectures do not get paid by the class.


Really good question. First, I don’t know any administrators who think the university is a business. I do knwo some faculty who think that. But, also, I don’t really talk to administrators about this sort of thing.

As to “who owns,” that’s a hard question. A professor generally has ownership rights to the material they put online. But, if they create that material using university equipment, the university could argue that the material is ultimately theirs. If it goes on Blackboard or some other content management system owned by the university, those universities generally believe, though I don’t know of any who have exercised, that there is an implicit surrender of the rights to the delivery method, though not everyone agree with this. The AAUP has guidance.

In short, it’s complicated. Faculty and the AAUP believe that faculty own the materials. Universities and their general counsels probably believe otherwise. If it’s been tested in court, I don’t know of a case. But I think that @Mindysan33 has expertise here, so I’ll shut up.

Also, Welcome Back!


Exactly. Late-stage capitalism something something…

The original article here is a disturbing example, but I do think it’s an outlier. The faculty I’m familiar with work very hard for their students, even the students that are half-heartedly attending. There’s always the hope that you’ll spark something in them. It’s not at all like a vendor/customer relationship (or at least, it shouldn’t be).


I’ll save my outrage about this until we find out enough details to verify this is anywhere close to being true, and that the students in the class were somehow misled or deceived.

If this is a free or low-cost MOOC or something like Capella, then it wouldn’t completely surprise me because the faculty have little control over anything, but that is what you are paying for (or not paying for) in those cases. If this is a traditional accredited university or even a traditional community college, it would be almost impossible to have a class where the instructor of record is not an employee, or at least has an official relationship with the university of some sort–sometimes former coaches and politicians teach classes and they might not actually get paid to do it and might not be real employees, but they certainly are alive. Someone has to be on the hook for turning in grades, and that person has to have some credentials if the college wants to maintain accreditation. There are a number of companies that are selling complete on-line curricula to universities though, so the university may not have a say in standards but still awards the degree, so this could happen I guess in those situations.

I suspect that most likely in this case, the video lectures are for a intro-level class that were made several years ago and the program has already done accreditation on that curriculum, and so the current instructor (who may well be a professor at that place) is using these videos which the university owns instead of generating essentially the same lectures anew. I know many colleagues show Alan Alda videos in class as part of lectures–that doesn’t mean Alan Alda is your professor or instructor, and the scientific american/Nova/etc videos are so well done I would prefer them over an instructor droning on over powerpoint. Lectures are a terrible way to organize learning anyway, and producing a good set and reusing it is more cost efficient than re-recording the same thing each year.

On-line classes can be a very confusing experience for students, because you don’t get good one-on-one time with the instructor, so you could easily believe the face in the lecture video is the instructor. The university may have invested tens of thousands to create high-quality lecture series videos for a class, and just because the person in the video is a professor does not mean that they are the instructor of that class, responsible for assignments, curriculum, assessments, etc.


Not a lot, but as far as I understand, we do own materials we create, even if we make it on university materials/property. That’s for the humanities, etc, though. As far as I know if I go to another university or community college, I don’t have to make entirely new classes for the survey.

I think when it comes to the sciences, I think things like ownership of patents and the like are a case by case basis and is worked out with the prof, their lab, and the uni?


After-lifetime tenure. Death does not release you…


That’s why I asked. I was hoping you would answer if the contracts break out any of that stuff that’s created along the way? For either either adjuct or tenure models, or if there’s a difference.

Much like a “work for hire” scenario where the buyer owns the rights afterwards instead of the producer. Which model is education using?

Without someone who knows, we’re all just assuming that it’s probably not defined in older contacts making it all unknown, but that future contracts will start to call it out.

In your specific example, if you don’t mind sharing, since you’re paid by the class. If you create some content, say a study guide for the class. Something you create, not provided by the institution. Who owns that after the class is over? Can the institution just make copies of it forever and hand it out to students in the next class that you’re not teaching? Can you take it to another institution if you teach the same class there?

PS: I also don’t know what class you teach. But, based on your long history of comments, I’m still going to assume those are lucky students.


A “class” though is ephemeral. What this professor produced and what the university is using is static content.

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That’s one helluva paywall


It will indeed, yes. For me, as I said, I get paid by the class. The contract is simple, one page, and doesn’t deal with anything else other than what classes I’m assigned and what they’re paying me for the semester. Someone who is either a full time lecturer is going to have a different contract that will spell out the expectations for teaching and research (with, most likely, rights retained by the prof). For tenure track, especially at research unis, you’re going to have a number of classes you’re expected to teach for a full academic year, the details of getting tenure (including what you’re expected to publish to get tenure, which will vary), and other responsibilities that are generally up to the department (service work, mentoring grad students, etc).

I do own the lecture materials I create, which means I have all the rights of taking materials with me.

US history and ancient world this semester.

I hope they feel that way.

Knowledge isn’t. We’re expected to up date content with new scholarship on occasion.


I’m grading the exams and term papers. I’m the instructor of record for this course. It’s unnerving seeing this twitter thread blow up over the internet.

(Longtime BoingBoing reader, first time commenter.)

Let me give you folks some info about the situation.

This is an online course offered through the university and a 3rd party company as part of an online education partnership started 10 years ago. The professor in the lectures was an illustrious expert and beloved teacher at my university. He worked with the company to create and develop this course. The whole organization, readings, assignments–everything is what he put together.

There are two TAs along with myself (Ph.D. art historian) to grade the assignments and exams and give feedback to the students. Although it is online, this is a completely standard kind of survey class with standard forms of assessment in my field. Nothing out of the ordinary in that regard.

My name appears in the first sentence of the first line of the course outline. The second sentence explains that the late professor is the one in the recorded lectures. It’s a shame that this student appears to be upset about the passing of the professor, but they missed the parts of the syllabus and registration that list me as the person on the other end of the email address for the course.

By the way, one of my colleagues tells me that a member of our department reached out to the online learning company and told them that the original professor had passed away. They didn’t don’t seem to have done anything with that info.

I’ve worked at universities where the upper admin would have loved to create recordings of professors and replace us all with underpaid adjuncts or TAs. This is not that kind of school. I’m really fortunate to work here now.

There’s plenty in the world to get outraged about these days. This is not one of those situations.


You got it. The situation is pretty much as you describe it here.

I’m the instructor of record for the course in question, so I know the real story. Thanks for your helpful perspective.