I'm working on a research project with other librarians who work with nursing schools from across the United States.
Our research question involves the restrictiveness of requirements for articles used in student writing assignments, i.e. limiting to articles published in the past 5 years and one author must be a nurse.
Our data collection plan involves collecting syllabi and assignments for nursing school writing assignments to analyze for the criteria that articles must meet.
We would like to know before we begin, do syllabi and course assignments constitute intellectual property that is protected by copyright laws?
Thank you for your assistance with this!
Yes, syllabi and assignments can be protected by copyright, so long as they are of sufficient substance and originality.
Of course, there is no precise formula for what constitutes “sufficient substance and originality.” However, a freshly-composed assignment of more than a paragraph or two should be enough to qualify for protection, and a typical syllabus—setting forth the course purpose, assignments, means of grading, and class-specific policies—should almost always qualify (even if wrapped up inside a larger institution-wide template to cover academic integrity, ADA accommodations, and grade appeal).
The trick, however, is know who—or what—owns that copyright. Some institutions will claim ownership, since the content was generated by their faculty (a concept called “work for hire”). But other institutions will expressly let their faculty own their work-product. So, there is no one rule for determining ownership, and that means there is not one method for obtaining permission.
But do you need permission? While that is always nice, in academia (just like anywhere else), not everyone is eager to have their own work assessed, and yet, there must be some way for analysis, commentary, and criticism of that work to be conducted. Which bring us to every information professional’s favorite copyright concept: fair use.
Fair use is the ability to use copyright-protected materials for purposes of education, commentary, and criticism. It was designed for projects like the one in this question. But just like with determining ownership, there can be no cookie-cutter answer, for as one court put it: “Determining fair use is a mixed question of fact and law.”
How can a project like the member’s address this “mixed question?” In a situation like the one presented by the member, here is a good approach:
Generate a careful summary or abstract of the project (which the member has done here), and the data collection methods.
Consider how many copies of assignments/syllabi the project will need to make, how they will be stored, and the use your project will make of them. If stored in hard copy, where will the copies be, how many must you create, and how will you restrict further duplication? If digital, consider how the electronic copies will be accessed and secured, perhaps warning users on a user-limited shared drive to only use the copies for the purposes of the project, and to not disseminate them further.
With all that assessed (but no copies yet made!), conduct and document a “fair use assessment,” using your institution’s policy and form for fair use (any research institution, or educational institution, should have these; for example, the great library team at Cornell has a well-developed checklist for their faculty and staff to use when contemplating the use or partial use of copyright-protected materials).
If you determine the use will be “fair,” and decide to proceed with making only those copies you need for your project (and include only the content needed to prove your point in any final product) save the fair use assessment documentation, because under Copyright §504, a good-faith belief by a library, archives, or higher ed institution that it is making a fair use of protected materials can limit the damages in the event it is accused of infringement.
So, to reiterate the answer to the core question: yes, assignments and syllabi can be protected. But to expand from there: that protection should not be a roadblock to an academic work assessing them. While it might present a small “speed bump,” the law of fair use provides options that are consistent with good scholarship practices and rigorous inquiry.
I am curious to see your project’s conclusions.
 Hon. Cardamone, in Weissmann v. Freeman, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 868 F.2d 1313, at 1324 (1989), ruling on a case of copyright infringement in academia, while also over-ruling a lower court judge who was a bit ham-handed in assessing the original case (even judges have a tough time with fair use!).
 Or as the law puts it: “…the court shall remit statutory damages in any case where an infringer believed and had reasonable grounds for believing that his or her use of the copyrighted work was a fair use under section 107, if the infringer was: (i) an employee or agent of a nonprofit educational institution, library, or archives acting within the scope of his or her employment who, or such institution, library, or archives itself, which infringed by reproducing the work in copies or phonorecords…