School Board Wants To Take Copyrights Away From Students And Teachers

schoolroom2Donna Anderson

A proposal under consideration by a school board in Upper Marlboro, MD, is intended to protect the privacy rights of the school district but it may end up stifling creativity. If it passes, Prince George County Board of Education will own the copyright on all work done by students and teachers, regardless of where that work was performed or for what reason.

Imagine your kindergartener’s drawing hanging on the refrigerator with a big, bold stamp across the bottom that says Property of Prince George County Board of Education. Under the proposal, everything from drawings to essays, to teachers’ lesson plans would become the intellectual property of the school district. Even apps created by students for their own personal use would become the property of the district.

The school board says they’re introducing the proposal as a means to address the increased use of technology in the classroom and protect the intellectual property rights of the school, but David Rein, a lawyer and adjunct law professor who teaches intellectual property law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, said this is the first time he’s ever heard of such a measure.

“The way this policy is written, it essentially says if a student writes a paper, goes home and polishes it up and expands it, the school district can knock on the door and say, ‘We want a piece of that,’” Reid said. “I can’t imagine that.”

Many employers have similar policies in effect that allow them to hold the rights to their employees’ work. These policies typically cover work done for the company, on the company’s time, using the company’s equipment and materials, and a formal agreement between the company and the employee is signed at the time of hire.

But the Prince George proposal goes a few steps beyond and says that even work created by students and teachers on their own time, using their own materials, would become the property of the school district, and that simply by ratifying the proposal the school board will automatically hold all copyrights.

A copyright grants the creator of an original work automatic and exclusive rights to do with it as he pleases. Those rights can only be passed to another entity if there’s a formal, written agreement. The school board can’t just step in and say, “It’s ours”, they’d have to require that all students and teachers sign a formal agreement transferring their rights to all intellectual property.

Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution states:

“The Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

In 2001, while in elementary school, Adrienne Paul and her sister, Abigail Schiavello, wrote a 28-page book for a school project – “Our Mom Has Cancer.” The sisters were interviewed on national television on the Rosie O’Donnell show and they received a $10,000 check from the American Cancer Society, who later published the book. Had the policy been in effect at that time the sisters never would have been able to sell the publishing rights because the school district would have owned their book.

David Cahn, an education activist who regularly attends school board meetings in Prince George County, says, “There is something inherently wrong with (this proposal). There are better ways to do this than to take away a person’s rights. It’s like they’re exploiting the kids.”

Peter Jaszi, a law professor with the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic at American University, called the proposal in Prince George’s “sufficiently extreme” and questions whether the policy, when applied to the students, would even be legal.