School Board Gets Failing Grade for Misguided Copyright Policy

During a Prince George’s County Board of Education meeting on January 24th, an ostensibly innocuous proposal was introduced to outline the school district’s policy on copyrighted materials.  The policy, entitled “Use and Creation of Copyrighted Materials,” recognized that “[i]n the course of providing education and related services, the use and reproduction of materials protected by copyright may be necessary.”  The intention was to suggest appropriate ways for teachers, students, and faculty to interact with and make the most of copyrighted works for educational purposes, and it went on to “provide guidelines for the legal and permitted fair use of copyrighted materials” that arise in the classroom.   

Unfortunately, buried within the policy was a second unrelated proposal that has garnered significant attention for its potential negative impact on educators’ and students’ rights as creators and innovators.  The policy represents the Board’s misguided attempt to take ownership over “[w]orks created by employees and/or students” for a school or department-specific purpose and asserts that if adopted, these works will become the Board of Education’s property.  Included in the policy are all works “even if created on the employee’s or student’s time and with use of their materials.”

Variations on this type of arrangement are common in employment agreements, where the Copyright Act allows the employer to retain ownership of a work made for hire.  It is much less accepted in the education community where it strikes against some of the core principles at play in the classroom – namely encouraging a child’s exploration and creativity.  

The proposal garnered immediate and intense ire for what was labeled a misguided attempt to harness the intellectual property rights of students and educators.  One community member in attendance during the meeting spoke up, asserting “the possibility of using [intellectual property] rights is a great incentive for people to develop” strong copyrighted works and that when you “take that away, that incentive is lost.” 

Since becoming public, calls for revision have intensified.  The growing criticism highlights a fundamental understanding that creators can be found everywhere from the classroom to the recording studio.  Individuals rely on copyright rights to protect against exploitation, whether that exploitation is by a service like Instagram that changes its terms of service mid-stream to claim additional rights from users so it can exploit their works commercially, or a public school district that proposes policies to exploit its student creativity without their consent.  These occurrences remind us that protections for our creative rights exist for good reason.

The Board’s policy was introduced as a “first reader” and will be revisited at a future meeting.