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Maryland School District Claims Ownership of all Students’ Work

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PRINCE GEORGE COUNTY, MD – The board of education of Prince George County is considering a proposal to copyright all work created by teachers and students in its district. This would include everything from a teacher’s lesson plan to computer apps created by high school students to a picture drawn by a first-grader. If the plan is enacted, anything created by teachers or students connected to school work would belong to the district regardless of where it was created, at school or home.

Teachers worry that such a rule would stifle creativity and incentive when it comes to finding new ways to educate students. Parents and civil liberties groups question the legality of the state claiming ownerships to anything created by students on their own time or on school property.

“There is something inherently wrong with that,” David Cahn, an education activist who regularly attends county school board meetings, said before the board’s vote to consider the policy. “There are better ways to do this than to take away a person’s rights.”

An excerpt from the proposed policy reads:

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. 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.

David Rein, an adjunct law professor who teaches intellectual property at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and an attorney, said he had never heard of a local school board enacting a policy that claimed copyright of a student’s work.

According to Rein, universities commonly have “sharing agreements” for work created by professors and college students. Under those agreements, a university, professor and student could benefit from a project. “The way this policy is written, it essentially says if a student writes a paper, goes home and polishes it up and expands it, the school district can knock on the door and say, ‘We want a piece of that,’ ” Rein said. “I can’t imagine that.”

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

But Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said the proposal seems to be revenue-driven. There is a growing secondary online market for teacher lesson plans, he said.  “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.”

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 $10,000 from the American Cancer Society, could not have sold the rights to their book, Our Mom Has Cancer, under such a policy.

Their mother, Dawn Ackerman, said she would have obtained legal advice if there had been a policy like the one being considered when her daughters wrote their book about her fight against cancer 14 years ago. “I really would have objected to that,” she said.

When Jacobs was questioned about the policy after it was introduced, she said it was never the board’s “intention to declare ownership” of students’ work. “Counsel needs to restructure the language,” Jacobs said. “We want the district to get the recognition … not take their work.”

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