Techdirt is one of many who have picked up this story about a copyright battle that’s brewing in a Maryland school district over who owns work done by teachers—and students—during school time.

The Prince George district is trying to pass a policy that would give it ownership over all materials that teachers create for use in the classroom—and over all work that students produce as a consequence. There are a number of things which are wrong with this theory. Firstly, as this write-up in The Washington Post points out:

“It’s not unusual for a company to hold the rights to an employee’s work, copyright policy experts said. But the Prince George’s policy goes a step further by saying that work created for the school by employees during their own time and using their own materials is the school system’s property.”

I think that the nature of the job one is hired for is also a relevant issue. In my days as a freelance copywriter, it was of course understood that any writing I produced was work-for-hire. But my contract as a teacher is solely for that—to be a teacher. My principal is free to set some parameters on that, and she has done so—she takes a cut of the for-profit enrichment program I run after school, and any teacher who wants to tutor or babysit on the side has to run it by her first. But we are neither contracted nor are we paid for curriculum development, so there would be no grounds for her to claim any ownership of such projects if her staff were so inclined. She pays for us to purchase resources to use in the classroom. None of us need to make our own in order to do our jobs. So if I want to mess around on my own time and put together a little booklet or two, why would she have a stake in that?

And including the work of students in this policy is downright bizarre. Here in Canada, the government puts out a resource package every year to help teachers teach about veterans and Remembrance Day, and one year, one of the activities involved designing a bookmark for a contest. If one of our students had participated in this lesson as part of their educational program at school, and won the contest, should the school have had the right to knock on that student’s door and ask for a cut?

If I make something useful and want to share it with another teacher, I should be allowed to do that. If a child produces artwork in my class, they should be able to do with it as they please. For the sake of ‘protecting’ someone’s ‘rights’ in that one-in-a-million situation where someone really might strike it big, they are proposing to kill the rights of hundreds of thousands of others, including innocent kids. How is that a win?

And, legality notwithstanding, the Techdirt write-up points out that this policy might be teaching our children an unintended lesson. As author Mike Masnick writes, “This is a public school system, a place in which knowledge is supposed to be shared for the sake of learning. And the lesson they’re sending is that information is to be hoarded by powerful entities for the sake of profits. Shameful.”

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  1. Keep in mind what Wikipedia notes about this county, that it is, ” immediately north, east, and south of Washington, D.C. ” The political culture is that of the federal beltway–a mindset that all you and I have is theirs.

    They’re on very dubious grounds with what teachers create even on school time. When I took a media law course ages ago at the University of Washington, the professor said precisely the opposite about his class notes. Because the state paid him to create them, he told us, they were in the public domain.

    And they’re completely out to lunch with students, who’ve not been hired and thus can’t be said to be doing work for hire.

    I suspect a school district’s lawyer put them up to this. It’s just the sort of underhanded behavior lawyers thing is clever. And the school board members weren’t bright enough to see how silly it is for the county to be claiming ownership of what the kids in their district write on their own time at home.

    A school district whose board wasn’t so clueless would be delighted to have a teacher talented enough that his class notes would be of value and at the same time not being foolish enough to claim that value for themselves.

  2. This is shameful on many levels. Clearly, students are not compensated so work-for-hire is not even remotely applicable. As for classroom teachers, I think that there would need to be at least a memorandum of understanding signed by both teacher and an officer of the school system. That document would have to specify both the product expected and the compensation for such work. Schools can pay for such things in various ways. One popular option is “released time” which is a label for the practice of reducing the number and/or variety of courses taught in exchange for sone alternate duty such as developing curriculum materials, serving as department chair, etc. Another option is “extra compensation.” The difference being whether the work is done during regular work hours (released time) or outside of that time frame (extra compensation). Although this is a K-12 example, the same principles apply in higher education although grading papers and class preparation is often done outside of normal working hours.

  3. Frank, I agree that there were need to be a mutual understanding on this. For example, my contract says that they can expect me to attend a limited number of fundraiser evenings, school plays, parent interviews and so on during non-school hours for no extra pay because it’s part of the job. We all know that, and we all signed off on that in our contracts, so nobody complains (much!) when they come up. But it says nothing about curriculum development in there. There is no prohibition against creating one’s own materials, nor is there permission explicitly granted. It just isn’t in there at all. Now, technically, the principal does have curriculum approval—if I created my own stuff and she asked me not to teach it in favour of something else, I would of course comply. But I don’t think she would have any grounds to claim ownership of it by any means, especially if I were extra-cautious and did it at home during my personal time 🙂

  4. Shameful but not surprising. Schools are expected to do more and more while budgets become smaller and smaller due to lowered tax revenue at all levels. Thus, school administrators are driven to desperate and questionable measures such as this.
    In higher education, we see the effects of reduced tax revenues in the form of higher tuition, mounting student debt and increased dissatisfaction with the ROI (return on investment). The evidence for this can be seen in a recent report from Moody’s Investment Services discussed here:
    In the midst of all this, textbook publishers are actually trying to make digital learning materials MORE expensive. They are doing this by folding the eTextbook into the Learning Management System. This, they hope, will have the effect of re-cornering the textbook market that threatened to escape their grasp when it became possible for teachers and their students to create and disseminate their own eTextbooks and study them in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

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