Should a School District Own the Work of Teachers, Students?

Prince George's County School Board set out to define property rights for computer apps that teachers might develop in county classrooms, but legal experts believe the Board's proposal went well over the line of customary practice. County residents and activists are asking, can the county declare ownership of anything made by both employees and students? The Washington Post's Ovetta Wiggins reports that the county's radical proposal is attracting attention nationwide, causing the school board embarrassment and hesitation in voting on the idea.

Board Chair Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) said she and Vice Chair Carolyn M. Boston (District 6) attended an Apple presentation and learned how teachers can use apps to create new curricula. The proposal was designed to make it clear who owns teacher-developed curricula created while using apps on iPads that are school property, Jacobs said.

But the proposal now before the board goes well beyond apps, iPads and teachers. It specifically includes student work and non-technological creations.

"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."

If a student writes a story at home and submits it for publication, and the story has never been used for classroom credit, then the policy would not apply. But as soon as the student work has any connection to school, the policy would give the board full intellectual property rights, even if the work was done at home with the student's own materials. While most student work never requires intellectual property protection, there are occasional exceptions.

In 2002, the American Cancer Society published a book by two little girls who lived in Prince George's County. Their mother, Dawn Ackerman, was going through cancer treatments, so Adrienne and Abigail wrote a story for a school assignment about what it was like to be afraid of cancer. The book grew out of the school assignment, and eventually Our Mom Has Cancer was published. It remains one of the few books about cancer for children as young as 4. But who should own the rights to this work? It began as a school paper, but clearly much more development went into the text and pictures beyond what the classroom required. Mrs. Ackerman said that their family would not have found it acceptable to share profits with the school district.

School districts can claim a certain amount of ownership when an employee develops a product on school time and using school property, but it's unusual for them to claim full rights. Legal experts say Prince George's County's idea isn't likely to fly.

David Rein, a lawyer and adjunct law professor who teaches intellectual property at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, said he had never heard of a local school board enacting a policy allowing it to hold the copyright for a student's work.

Embarrassed by the national attention, the school board wants to clarify that they did not intend to take away rights.

Counsel needs to restructure the language," Jacobs said. "We want the district to get the recognition . . . not take their work."

Jacobs explained that the school board will look at amending the language, and that they have postponed voting to accept the policy. Other counties have similar policies in place, but these, for example in Montgomery County, allow for sharing property rights with the creator, depending on how much school time and equipment was used for development.

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