When a student pens an essay, takes an image for a photography class or writes a short story for a literature class, not a lot of thought typically goes into who owns it.
For one, it’s generally assumed that the student owns the work they create and second, and perhaps more importantly, the work is usually temporary. It’s created, graded and then put away.
However, with the growth of the Internet and social media, student work is finding a more permanent home and increasingly there is value in that work. That has set the stage for increasing battles between students and their schools over the copyright in the works they create.
For example, in early 2013, Prince George’s County Board of Education in Maryland proposed a new policy that would have transferred the rights of all works created by employees and students for the school to the Board of Education so long as the work was created for the district.
This transfer would have been regardless of whether the material was created on the student’s time and with the use of their own equipment.
The proposed plan drew a sharp backlash and was abandoned, but it wouldn’t be the final such battle.
Last year in Texas, the Lewisville Independent School District attempted to force student Anthony Mazur to take down a Flickr account he created and stop selling images he took to interested parents under the penalty of suspension.
The district claimed that it was trying to protect the privacy of its students, copyright was the lever they were using to try and remove the images. The district eventually set aside the order but the challenges for Mazur continued.
In the new school year, Mazur and his classmates were ordered to sign a work for hire agreement in order to use district equipment, including cameras. This agreement would effectively transfer the copyright in all work created using school equipment to the school itself, enabling it to restrict how students use it.
Mazur, for his part, has refused to sign and is currently being denied access to the school’s equipment, making his job as the photo editor for the yearbook significantly more challenging.
The reason for these battles is simple. Under normal circumstances, when an essay is written or an image is taken, copyright rests with the creator, even if they used another person’s equipment.
The result is that students almost always own the rights to their creations in the classroom, whether they use school equipment or not.
However, there is an exemption under copyright law, works made for hire. Under the law, works made by employees as part of their job are owned by their employers. Copyright can also transfer, in certain circumstances, if the two parties agree to a work for hire agreement before the work is created.
While these agreements are still very rare and controversial in the classroom, as schools seek to find more ways to control how student work is used, they are likely to become more common.
As such, the time to start thinking about who owns works created in and for the classroom has to start now. Both districts and students alike need to think about this issue and how they want to resolve it.
Considering that we’re already seeing hit apps and amazing photos being developed for classes, the interest in student-created content is only rising and, with it, the likelihood of copyright conflict grows too.
There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are a lot easier to address now than after some great battle has begun, which is exactly the risk students everywhere are facing.