In an ideal world where educators and institutions share resources with Creative Commons licenses that regulate reuse and adaptation there would be no problems with digital rights in MOOCs. The original connectivist MOOCs were all based on open educational resources and participants were well versed in the principles of openness. However the newer MOOC variations come in 50 shades of openness and there are suddenly complex copyright issues that participating institutions and educators need to be aware of.
There's a timely reminder of these issues in an Educause article entitled Copyright Challenges in a MOOC Environment. The article is the result of interviews with university leaders and legal experts about agreements with MOOC providers. Copyright agreements within a university regarding teachers' rights to their material may not apply when the course is globally distributed as a MOOC. Some material that may be used for educational purposes within the confines of a campus course may not be used when freely available on line. Some MOOC providers claim copyright on the content of the MOOCs they distribute.
"Each MOOC provider, for example, establishes a proprietary claim on material included in its courses, licenses to the user the terms of access and use of that material, and establishes its ownership claim of user-generated content. This conflicts with the common institutional policy approach that grants rights to faculty who develop a course. Fair-use exceptions to traditional copyright protection face challenges as well, given a MOOC’s potential for global reach."
If a university offers an open MOOC with the best of intentions and then offers the course via a MOOC consortium, that openness may be threatened. If that consortium sells the MOOC to other universities in a sort of franchising agreement the consortium will profit from selling rights that are inherently open. If money is made from a MOOC then shouldn't those responsible for creating the content get some kind of reward too?
An even more problematic area is that of user-generated content; the assignments that students submit for evaluation on the course forum or other repositories. Are those contributions automatically the property of the MOOC provider and are students aware of this? If you're taking a for-credit MOOC and you submit a longer paper for assessment who does that work belong to: the MOOC provider, the university or the student? Can the MOOC provider use student material from one course on future courses? The article raises many interesting questions that cannot be fully answered today but it concludes by stating that the legal discussion about MOOCs is inevitable given the pioneering nature of the movement.
The moral of the story is that universities need to consider very carefully the legal implications of an agreement with a MOOC provider and discuss concerns openly before committing. It's going to take time to establish a new framework and maybe new perspectives of digital rights will emerge. The crucial factor is that all parties discuss as openly as possible and try to find answers to all these questions.