English: Art student drawing

Who owns your content? It’s a straightforward question, but the answer has frequently been elusive, now more so than ever. Thanks to digital technology, it is now easier than ever to post your own content or for others to do so on your or their behalf and to earn revenues in the process. The issue raised eyebrows in Maryland last week when a suburban D.C. school board floated a proposal that would transfer the copyright of all student and teacher work to the school district.

What was that again? The Prince George’s Country Board of Education floated a proposal that would transfer copyright of everything from lesson plans to homework to the district:

“Works created by employees and/or students specifically for use by the Prince George’s County Public Schools or a specific school or department within PGCPS, are properties of the Board of Education even if created on the employee’s or student’s time and with the use of their materials,” the policy reads. “Further, works created during school/work hours, with the use of school system materials, and within the scope of an employee’s position or student’s classroom work assignment(s) are the properties of the Board of Education.”

In light of a massive public outcry the proposal is ‘on hold,” perhaps forever, but the issues remain front and center. As a matter of law, the Board of Education arguably owns teacher lesson plans and other materials produced directly for use in the classroom. That’s a classic work-for-hire principle. But student work? It’s probably a non-starter. The students would have to transfer their copyright in their original work  to the School District, and that’s probably unenforceable in both legal and practical terms.

The motivation that brought about this ill founded initiative was quite simply dollar signs. There’s a growing and lucrative market for educational materials online and the Board of Education wanted a piece (or all) of it. At least one website, TeachersPayTeachers, has created a marketplace for teacher generated materials. This marketplace was non-existent a few years ago, but now has 15,000 teachers selling their work, creating at least one millionaire in the process.

The Prince George’s School Board initiative raises important issues about the boundaries of work for hire. When I started working for ABC years ago, I had to sign a work-for-hire agreement. ABC owned everything that I did during work hours and for projects intended for ABC. I had to submit other work to them for review, which I thought was more or less fair. They wanted to ensure that any content that I created would not devalue the ABC brand. Over the years many journalists, at ABC and elsewhere, have created and distributed work under their own names, often even derived from work or experiences they gained on the job. I imagine that at least some of that work could have been claimed by employers under a work-for-hire claim.

Now, technology has created marketplaces for content, like teaching plans, where none existed years or even months before. And there are many shades of grey. How much is enough to change a software project so that it differs significantly from something you produced for an employer? Does a blog own the copyright to guest contributions? Now, that there’s money (both real and perceived) on the line, people have a tendency to see things differently, to view copyrights and ownership more expansively. If there’s one concrete piece of advice to be offered it is to know what your ownership rights are, whether you’re a freelancer or a permanent employee.

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