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Prince George’s County Schools’ Copyright Conundrum

Prince George’s County Public Schools has stepped into the bear trap of overreaching its own power with a proposed policy that would claim copyright on the original creations of students as well as teachers.

What Prince George’s County’s school board wants to do is supposedly clarify who owns curricula developed on school-owned technology equipment, such as iPads. According to Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado – Boulder, there is a significant business selling teacher plans online, and schools want a cut of the revenue, if not all of it.

“I think it’s just the district saying, ‘If there is some brilliant idea that one of our teachers comes up with, we want be in on that. Not only be in on that, but to have it all,’ ” Welner told the Washington Post. He continued, “In the brave new world of software development, there might be more opportunity to be creative in ways that could reach beyond that specific teacher’s classroom.”

That is entirely fine by my understanding of copyright law, since work created under a “work for hire” agreement made with an employee allows an employer to hold ownership of an original creation. However, if no such contract or agreement exists with an individual, like it is with the students in Prince George’s County, the creation belongs to and is controlled by the individual until they give up ownership.

That is at least what I would understand to be the case, but the Board of Education saw things differently for some reason. The originally proposed the policy states:

“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 use of their materials.”

So, at a glance, it looks like the school board is saying it could lay claim to the math homework of the Algebra II class whizzes, and if they went so far as to sell them, they could claim all of the profit.

That’s a dumbed-down way of looking at it, but the basic principle at stake here is that students who create something that is either worth an “A” in a class assignment or millions of dollars in their adult lives don’t want to see their work only profit those who happen to govern the organization teaching and enhancing their skills.

Also, in today’s increasingly technological world, the pervasiveness of the Internet  and the high usage of the Internet by students makes this principle vitally important to protect.

According to Internet-rights non-profit Fight for the Future’s website Don’t Copyright Me,

“With this policy, a high school student could get a takedown notice from their own school for posting a video they made for class on YouTube.”

Given the large amount of videos uploaded every day to YouTube, and to other video-sharing sites, the number of school projects likely already present on the Web would be immense. Imagine if they were all threatened with mass copyright claims and takedown notices. The mere thought evokes memories of the fight over SOPA and PIPA that led to a massive Internet-wide protest over a year ago.

This policy may have some basis in an honest desire to protect the schools’ property, but it is a misguided effort at best. The danger this policy poses is not just toward the creativity of the students or even the teachers, but toward the line that stands between copyright policy and crony-like collusion of big government and big business.

As of now, the policy has been put on hold pending legal review, which gives me hope freedom will prevail. Hopefully the Prince George’s County board of education will see it the same way.

Categories: Education
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