Openness and Ownership: Who Owns School Work? from Hack Education

This post first appeared on Educating Modern Learners

Whose Copyright Is It?


Last year, the Prince George’s County Board of Education (in Maryland) proposed a new policy that would grant the district copyright over work that staff and students had done, meaning that, as The Washington Post reported, "a picture drawn by a first-grader, a lesson plan developed by a teacher or an app created by a teen would belong to the school system, not the individual.”

The proposed policy read, in part:

"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.”

The proposal apparently came about because district leaders had seen a presentation about the possibilities for creating new curricula using iPads, and many observers speculated that the district wanted “a piece of the action.” No doubt, sites selling teacher-created lesson plans have become big business in recent years, with companies like TeachersPayTeacherstouting the millions of dollars that educators have earned from their marketplace. The district proposal would have prevented its teachers from selling their materials online.

Many districts already have in place policies that claim copyright over employees’ work — particularly if it is done while at work or on work-issued equipment. But the Prince George’s County measure would have gone farther by saying that all work, done on one’s own time or on one’s own devices – was owned by the district. Furthermore, it took the usual step to claim copyright over students’ work.

No surprise, the policy was put on hold after public outcry over the move and questions about its legality (after all, students, unlike teachers, are not school employees).

Copyright in a Digital Age


The Prince George’s County School Board was rebuked (in the media at least) for making such sweeping claims to copyright, but there are important lessons to be learned here for all districts. Thanks to new technologies, we should be asking more questions about the ownership of content and the ownership of data. (EML has explored the latter as it relates to student privacy.)

Our questions cannot simply involve how best to assign or protect copyright. Our concerns must not simply address profits. We should talk about creativity and control.

As open education advocate David Wiley has argued, new technologies should prompt us to rethink how copyright is applied to education, particularly if we want to take full advantage of what a move to “digital” can afford us:

The Internet has frequently been compared to the printing press, which was in turn frequently compared to the process of writing books by hand. Today, the cost of having a 250-page book transcribed by hand is about $250. The cost of printing that same book with a print-on-demand service is about $5. The cost of copying an online version of that same book (e.g., an ePub file) is about $0.0008. The cost of shipping either the handwritten or printed book is about $5. The cost of distributing an electronic copy of the book over the Internet is approximately $0.0007.


Clearly, the Internet has empowered us to copy and share with an efficiency never before known or imagined. However, long before the Internet was invented, copyright law began regulating the very activities the Internet makes essentially free (copying and distributing). Consequently, the Internet was born at a severe disadvantage, as preexisting laws discouraged people from realizing the full potential of the network.


Since the invention of the Internet, copyright law has been “strengthened” to further restrict the Internet’s copying and sharing capabilities. While existing laws, business models, and educational practices make it difficult for instructors and learners to leverage the full power of the Internet to access high-quality, affordable learning materials, open educational resources can be freely copied and shared (and revised and remixed) without breaking the law. Open educational resources allow the full technical power of the Internet to be brought to bear on education. OER allow exactly what the Internet enables: free sharing of educational resources with the world.

Although OER are often talked about in terms of cost-savings – free and openly licensed textbooks, for example, as opposed to the proprietary materials sold by traditional publishers – we should think more broadly about what “open” might mean in terms of our educational practices.

Openly Licensed Materials: Only the First Step


To be sure, there is much confusion about how copyright works. What does copyright enable or restrict? What counts (in the US at least) as “fair use”? Can copyrighted materials be used in the classroom? If so, how?

Creative Commons licenses — which are built on top of copyright and do not change ownership — do enable others to copy and distribute materials without having to ask for the copyright holder’s express permission. These “open licenses” make educational content more “remixable,” so that lessons and textbooks for example, can be readily adapted to new settings and new circumstances.

Open licenses make sharing easier, and as Wiley has argued:

Education is, first and foremost, an enterprise of sharing. In fact, sharing is the sole means by which education is effected. If an instructor is not sharing what he or she knows with students, there is no education happening.

This ethos about sharing is a core piece of “open education,” and while the licenses facilitate that ethos, it’s the ethos itself that is of particular significance, I think. The open licenses are a necessary condition, if you will, for bringing education into the Internet Age, but they’re just the starting ground for rethinking “who owns” and “who controls” teaching and learning. That is, you can use an openly licensed textbook, and not really change any traditional classroom practices. An open license is just the first step.

Returning to the Prince George’s County story: what do its attempts to claim copyright over teacher and student creations suggest about its position on creation and creativity? What does it mean that we think about digital work as “school property”? What does the proposal say about where the benefit of “school work” – students’ labor or teachers’ labor – is supposed to accrue?

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