Board wants to own work by teachers, students

If a high school student writes an app for a class assignment or a teacher develops great lesson plans, who owns the copyright?  In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the school board proposes claiming ownership of all work created for school use by students or teachers — even if it’s done on their own time with their own resources.

There’s a growing online market for teacher lesson plans, Kevin Welner,  director of the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center, told the Washington Post.  “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,’ ” he said.

Claiming the right to students’ work is unlikely to hold up in court.

For Adrienne Paul and her sister, Abigail Schiavello, who wrote a 28-page book more than a decade ago in elementary school for a project that landed them a national television interview with Rosie O’Donnell and a $10,000 check from the American Cancer Society, the policy — had it been in effect — would have meant they would not have been able to sell the rights to Our Mom Has Cancer.

Board Chair Verjeana M. Jacobs said it was not the board’s “intention to declare ownership” of students’ work, just to “get the recognition.” The language should be changed before final approval, she said.

If a teacher develops lessons, software, apps or anything else on her own time, why should the rights belong to the school district?

There can be big money in educational apps. An independent developer made $700,000 in two years from an app aimed at homeschoolers.


About Joanne


  1. Under U.S. law, governmental entities cannot initiate ‘Involuntary Transfer’ of copyrighted material, and I suspect the person(s) on the school board didn’t bother to check with the school district’s legal beagle, or have them refer it to a law firm which specializes in intellectual property issues.

    The student’s work belongs to the student, unless they waive rights to the material, the school district cannot simply appropriate it, and I suspect they’d be in violation of the U.S. constitution which prohibits taking of property without compensation.

    This has to be 100 on the lame-o-meter 🙂

  2. commentariette says:

    Even if a lesson plan was developed on a teacher’s own time and equipment (computer, internet, etc), it seems wildly unlikely that it would not have been tested on his/her students.

    If a teacher uses school facilities to test or refine his/her teaching material (i.e. uses students as guinea pigs), then absolutely the school district and parents/taxpayers have a claim on the work. Similarly, if s/he refers to employment at xyz school district in marketing the work.

    I don’t know of any company dealing with IP that doesn’t have very strict rules about what kind of external paid activities employee can be involved in. Generally, any work related to a person’s employment is forbidden or very strictly controlled.

    Small stipends for community service type work (e.g. library board, teaching confirmation class, etc) are almost always allowed. Artistic work unrelated to someone’s employment is usually not a problem, as long as it’s properly reported.

    • Suppose a MS ELA teacher develops a unit on Roman Britain, with appropriate historical and geographic sources, Macaulay’s Roman City, information on existing structures and excavations and one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels set in Roman Britain. An art-teacher colleague develops a companion unit on the art and architecture of Roman Britain and incorporates her own watercolor sketches of what today’s ruins and excavations might have looked like during the Roman period. Is there a difference in ownership between the two? Are the sketches in a different category from the rest? I’m not a lawyer, so I’d like clarification.

  3. What was it Mark Twain said about school boards?

    Create a strong financial disincentive for creative teachers with strong technology skills and subject knowledge to choose to work in your district. Brilliant (sarcastic).

    So the strong teachers who can create interesting lessons will choose to live in other districts. They may sell their lesson plans to your teachers. Oh, and there’ll be the obligatory legal fees to defend this greedy proposal.

    Instead, why not propose a technology and marketing partnership with interested teachers? Offer to help teachers create and market their lesson plans, for a small share of any profits, regulated by a separate negotiated contract.

  4. Why?

    1) Because teachers are not paid by the hour. There’s not exactly a clear “own time” if they’re not paid by the hour.

    2) Other professionals’ work is owned by their employers, usually. Unless they get special dispensation. Teachers want to be professionals? They should be take the lumps, too.

    • A job in which the employee simply does what they are told to do and never goes on to create something new or innovative is not a profession, it is a dead end job. Companies that thrive are those that encourage their employees to go beyond the minimum to come up with vibrant game changing ideas and products and make sure that employees who do this are well rewarded for their time and effort.

  5. Were they told of this when they were hired? In the private sector, some firms require employees to sign an intellectual property agreement that says that work-related products that the employee creates on company time or his/her own time belongs to the company.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      If the private sector firms *don’t* have the employees sign this form, anything the employee does on his/her own time with his/her own equipment belongs to the employee, NOT the employer.

  6. lightly seasoned says:

    Generally, in a corporation, the idea is that they don’t want the work product to be competition for the employer’s project. So if you work for a company that designs golf clubs, you can’t go out and design a club yourself and sell it. In education, however, there is no competitor. The school isn’t in the business of selling lesson plans. The teacher isn’t competing with the school board. In fact, if the school board’s “product” is the best education for its students, it is in the board’s interest for a teacher to moonlight pouring time and effort into her lesson plans rather than bar tending or the myriad other ways teachers make ends meet.

  7. palisadesk says:

    Precedent has significant influence on legal applications. An early example: some Direct Instruction programs developed early on by Engelmann and Becker (and several others) were developed during the time they were involved in Project Follow Through (1960-s-1970’s). Engelmann writes in one of his books about how, to avoid their work becoming public domain or government-owned, they did all of the writing and development at home, using their own paper, pencils, typewriters and so on, to obviate any such claim by the Feds or districts. They copyrighted and still have some ownership of those materials, which continue to be revised, tested and upgraded and to sell steadily lo these many years later.

    It’s true that teachers are not paid by the hour, but many publish books and articles based on or derived from their classroom experiences, and the school districts do not attempt to claim ownership of those products. Given that this has been the case for many decades (or longer), it would be difficult to make a successful claim that suddenly school districts own material written and published by teachers outside of their hours and place of employment.

    Nice try, though. I guess we the taxpayers will be soaked for the legal expenses spent by these geniuses trying to grab a piece of the pie.

    What does happen, as I know from personal experience, is that when a district commissions teachers to produce instructional materials, they require the writers to sign a waiver acknowledging that they will not own the copyright nor will they have any claim to revenues from sale of the materials; they will instead receive a one-time payment for their services.