Schools and Copyright

An article was published on the Washington Post site about a new proposed rule regarding copyright for teachers and students.  The article starts out stating:

A proposal by the Prince George’s County Board of Education to copyright work created by staff and students for school could mean that a picture drawn by a first-grader, a lesson plan developed by a teacher or an app created by a teen would belong to the school system, not the individual.

This clearly got my attention.  With regard to copyright, I’ve helped a few friends figure out where their personal work starts and ends versus that of their employer, and how to work this into their contract negotiations, so no one is surprised when an issue of intellectual property comes up in the future.  Basically, if you already have built a reputation, and someone wants to hire you based on having built and developed an audience, what right do they have to “share” your audience?  Do they own it if they hire you?  What happens if you leave later on?  Do they get to keep it?  Can you re-use work you created while working for them?  These can be sticky and often emotional issues, so it’s important to work these out before employment.

That being said, let’s take a look just at teachers for the moment.  Ever since my kids started school, I’ve known teachers who have one side gig or another.  Some tutor.  Some sell Tupperware, Southern Living at Home or other such “At the house of friends” sorts of gigs. Some run summer camps.  One teacher we know works at Domino’s over the summer, delivering pizzas, in order to make sure he can make ends meet and make sure his kids can sign up for little league.  Many teachers can’t even afford to live in the school districts where they teach, which should be a source of embarrassment to many of us.

If we’re not going to pay teachers as professionals but instead treat them like education factory line workers, we shouldn’t be surprised at all of they are seeking second jobs to help make the ends meet, and perhaps get a bit of a break from the day gig.  That being the case, asking them to give up, in part or in whole, revenue that might be generated from a book project, or an app, or lesson plans they have created and decided to publish, especially without any additional compensation or contract modifications is simply unfair and unconscionable.  If you are going to seek to take hold of someone’s intellectual property or “work product”, -something created for or with tools and materials provided by an employer, it should be in the person’s contract and should be part of the negotiation over salary and benefits.  If not, I think this amounts to an unconstitutional taking.  It’s something that schools, in charge of teaching our children about things like copyright, plagiarism,  honesty and even entrepreneurship- should be pretty darn careful about, especially if they are setting an example of what is fair use and what is not.

As for students, we get into a whole additional field.  Education is something we all pay for- either through tuition, or through taxes.  An important part of the educational process is based on sharing and critiquing the work of others.  We also have compulsory education laws, meaning that kids have to go to school, often where they live, and they have to do the work asked of them.  If, in the course of a class assignment, a kid comes up with a great idea and ends up later expanding that essay into a novel, who should own the copyright and profits from the endeavor?  The teacher who gave the initial assignment?  The school or district where that teacher works?  Or the student?  (And please don’t tell me this rarely happens- I interviewed a child this year for admission to a major university who has accomplished this feat!)

I would hope that everyone’s initial reaction is that the Student should own the copyright of this work, even if it was worked on during study halls, and even if part of the work was submitted for a grade.  After all, students are NOT employees.  They attend school because it is mandated by law (at least in part).  Students are not compensated except as part of the existing contract that says “If you live in our area, we’ll educate you for free, without any additional payment due.” (We can argue the details of that later… but extra fees are not the point of this post.)  To take their legal, intellectual property without a contract, release, agreement, or other authorization, or even try to take a part of it if money is involved, is simply outrageous.  It amounts to indentured servitude, in the event the work product from the student ever makes any money.

I certainly don’t want my children or the teachers in my district to worry that whenever they are engaged in some sort of creative activity, the school might come and want a piece of that work.  I already pay for school by way of taxation, support of fundraisers and the like.  Taking my kid’s app project and demanding a piece of the action is beyond the pale.  Telling my kid’s teacher that if they put together some great lessons, using our kids as the test market in class, and end up making a few dollars on the side, sharing them with other teachers, to cough up some dough, seems harsh and not worth the bad will it will create.  I want my kid’s teachers to be innovating and creating without constantly worrying about whether or not this has commercial implications.

If we take this to an Orwellian extreme, we could get totally transactional about every interaction.  How about paying my kid for having to put up with your experiments without formal consent from an IRB or other body about ethical experimentation?  How can you compel my child to do his homework, if he is worried about whether the results of this essay will end up in a teacher’s novel, as part of an exemplary incident in a textbook, or otherwise exploited without his permission or mine?  This is not the type of school any of us want our kids attending.  It’s not what teaching, learning and academia is about or should ever be about.

I hope this copyright “brilliant idea” in Prince George’s County dies a peaceful death.  While I certainly understand a school wanting to be able to use a third grader’s performance, art work or composition to be able to be shared on a school’s website, or in print, there should be some sort of release that would cover this.  Even if the school wanted to include it on a calendar, for example, that it might sell to parents as a fund raiser, I’m sure there’s a simple agreement that includes giving credit to the student and appropriate honors that would satisfy everyone, and not demand someone write a check.

If you go down the slippery road of copyright ownership in favor of schools and against the creators, especially with work compelled to be completed by law, we have an entirely coercive system that will finally be ready to be scrapped completely.  The whole bedrock of academic integrity will be finally undermined and it will be every man or student for themselves.

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