Sunday, February 03, 2013

Can a school district claim copyright ownership of student and teacher "homework"? Prince Georges County MD thinks so.

Can a school district claim copyright ownership of work done by students and teachers?  Maybe for work done at school yet.  What about work done at home for the classroom?
The Board of Education of the Prince Georges County MD, east of Washington DC. has promulgated a policy that it owns the rights to school-related teacher and student work “even if created on the employee’s or student’s time and with use of their own materials”.  The news story by Ovetta Wiggins in the Washington Post on Sunday, February 03, 2013, is here.  
There is a critical point here.  While a copyright owner can certainly announce that it will enforce its rights, it cannot create rights that do not exist under federal copyright law.  It’s not so clear that federal law would give a school permanent rights to student’s term paper.
The incentive for the policy may have been that the school district wants to make money off of the sale of teachers’ lesson plans.  Some teachers publish their lessons on line, usually on school websites, but some teachers and school districts actually allow the public to see them.  Would a mathematical proof of a well known theorem (say, “The Fundamental Theorem of Calculus”) be copyrightable?  The language and style and visuals could be, but not the logic of the proof itself.  (So Salman Khan can probably copyright his clever video proving the Pythagorean Theorem.)
But there are other obvious issues.  When I was in college (in 1964), a professor asked for term papers to be returned so they couldn’t wind up in “fraternity files”.  Stopping plagiarism can be an issue.
I composed a piano Sonata at home when I was a junior in high school.  I did perform it for my music teacher’s own class one time.  What if I had encountered the opportunity to perform it for a music class at school?  Could the school system have claimed copyright ownership?  I sure hope not.  What if a band teacher composes an orchestral sinfonietta for the high school band (please, not the “Prehistoric Suite”).  It wouldn’t be good if the teacher didn’t own his or her own work.   

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