Feb 11 | 2013

School District Overreaches for Students’ Copyrights

The Prince George’s County School Board in Maryland is considering a proposal that would allow the school district to claim copyright ownership in works produced by students and teachers. The policy takes an extreme position under the copyright “work for hire” doctrine and raises worrisome legal questions about how it would apply to students’ works in particular.

Copyrights typically are owned by the work’s creator, unless the book, picture, video, website or other creative work was made under a “work for hire” agreement. Generally a “work for hire” is something either made by an employee within the scope of her employment or specially commissioned in writing. In that case, the work would actually be owned by the employer or the firm, organization, or individual who requested the work.

The policy under consideration in Prince George’s County specifies that the school district owns works created by both school employees and students even if they are created outside of school time and using the employee’s or student’s own materials. This proposal has raised red flags for reaching beyond lesson plans created by teachers for classroom use to also cover projects, artwork, and papers created by students. It also has spawned a petition site protesting the precedent that would be set by adopting the proposal.

Policies for how to treat teachers’ works vary by school and school district. Universities will treat works differently depending on how much university resources are used to create the work and whether the work was created within the scope of employment.

The challenge with applying the “work for hire” doctrine to student works is that the students are not public school employees. They must legally attend school and cannot negotiate the terms of their attendance and the future use of their work product. No other school district in the Washington, D.C., area has included students under their copyright policies, according to the “Washington Post.”

The school board has taken the policy off of their agenda to rework the language, and at the minimum, they should reconsider including student work within the district’s copyright policy. A broader-than-necessary copyright policy sets the wrong tone for classrooms trying to inspire student creativity.