From The Journal of Copyright in Education and Librarianship:
At the launch of one of the early online open educational resources (OER) in 2002, the approach to addressing copyright was uncertain. Did the university or the faculty own their material? How would the third-party material be handled? Was all of its use considered fair use under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) because of its educational purpose? Or was permission-seeking necessary for this project to succeed and protect the integrity of faculty and university? For many years, this OER was conservative in its approach to third-party material, avoiding making fair use claims on the theory that it was too risky and difficult to prove in the face of an infringement claim. Additionally, being one of the early projects of its kind, there was fear of becoming a target for ambitious copyright holders wanting to make headlines (and perhaps win lawsuits). It was not until 2009 that the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for OpenCourseWare was written by a community of practitioners who believed that if fair use worked for documentary film makers, video creators, and others (including big media), it worked in open education as well. Once this Code was adopted, universities and institutions were able to offer more rich and complete course content to their users than before. This paper explains how it happened at this early open educational resource offering.
Link to the rest at The Journal of Copyright in Education and Librarianship
PG says that whenever a group of people get together to create something – a book, a collection of stories, a computer program, a mural, etc., etc., someone should think about copyright in the finished project.
If the group is going to make their creation free to all the world forever and ever, one place to locate decent licensing agreements at no charge is Creative Commons.
Creative Commons was established about twenty years ago to “build a vibrant, collaborative global commons,” mostly, but not completely online. The principal original goal was to encourage an open internet where information and knowledge was available with no strings attached for anyone who could use a device that accessed the internet.
In connection with this goal, the organization promulgated a collection of “free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple, standardized way to give your permission to share and use your creative work— on conditions of your choice.”
If you go Here, the Creative Commons website walks you through a quite-nice set of information and questions that lead a visitor to the Creative Commons license that will work the best for them if they want to share their creation free.
One important caveat – The Creative Commons licenses all include you making your work available to the rest of the world without the rest of the world having to pay you anything for your creations.
If you want to exert control over your creation in any material way beyond being mentioned as the creator or one of the creators in some manner a Creative Commons license is not what you want. If you want to make certain you get paid in some manner for your creation, a Creative Commons license is not what you want.
You’ll have to talk to an attorney.
Regarding the OP, the ironic thing about the creators of Open Courseware at MIT and others institutions of higher education could, at no cost to themselves, contracted the university attorney.
Every major institution of higher education and a great many not-so-major institutions (in the United States at least) has a university or college attorney who is supposed to help make sure the faculty don’t do something that’s legally stupid.
For even the dimmest of university counsel, a project whereby a group of university employees to get together with a bunch of people all over the place to create a computer program with lots and lots of information in it would have triggered a call to outside Intellectual Property Counsel who could have saved the project the sorts of problems mentioned in the OP.