A Misguided Proposal to Copyright Student Work
It’s not unusual for a company to claim that all work created by employees, on or off site, belongs by copyright to the company. Some universities and government agencies claim the same right to employees’ work, sharing to various extents in any profit to accrue from it. But a proposal by the Prince George’s (Virginia) County Board of Education claims that all work by school employees and students would be subject to copyright by the school system.
An argument can be made for claiming some degree of ownership of work done by a company or agency’s employees. After all, employees have access not only to technology, but also to the intellectual property of the company or agency including its intellectual history – successes and failures – upon which to build. In addition, the workplace provides a forum for collaboration and exchange of ideas with similarly trained employees. So if a research engineer builds a better mousetrap while on the job or tinkering at home, she has the advantage of the physical or intellectual resources the company or agency provides.
But let’s consider the school. In my experience, the great majority of teachers create curriculum and materials for their own students. On occasion a teacher will develop a book or program that can be sold to a publisher and disseminated over a broader range of professionals. In the rare event that a teacher sells her materials, it would be highly unlikely that the work would have been done at school because there is simply no time in the day to accomplish that extra work. Of course, if the teacher was paid by the district to develop curriculum or teaching materials during time outside the classroom, the expectation is that the work belongs to the school district. And even when work is developed on the teacher’s own time, I can tell you (again from experience) that no teacher will be able to quit her job and retire to the Bahamas on royalties.
But the Prince George board wants to go beyond teachers’ work and claim all the work done by students. There are more than a few problems with this idea. First of all, students are not employees of the school district. In fact, parents, not the school board, own the district, which exists through public funding. If a students develops a book or a video or an app or a piece of art that is marketable, the district ought to rejoice in the student’s success rather than suck up any profit that might come from it. Says David Cahn, an education activist who regularly attends the school board meetings, “There is something inherently wrong with that” [attempting to copyright kids’ work]. “There are better ways to do this than to take away a person’s rights.” University of Missouri Professor David Rein, a lawyer who teaches courses on intellectual property, says he’s never heard of a school district claiming to be able to copyright students’ work.
The board has not yet voted on the proposal and there is talk of amending it before it comes to vote. It’s a foolish idea, one that will generate far more ill will than revenue.