Can Schools Seize Ownership of Students’ Copyrights?

The Washington Post reports that Prince George’s County Board of Education has proposed asserting ownership over student copyrights. The draft policy states:

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.

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.

Examples of works which the Board hereby takes ownership are:

1. PGCPS Website

2. Individual School Website

3. Curriculum documents

4. Instructional materials for use in PGCPS or a specific school

5. Software and platforms developed for use by PGCPS, a specific school and/or the Board

6. Other works created for classroom use and instruction

The issue of Board ownership over its employees’ copyrightable works is well-settled. Board ownership over student-created work is less settled. bookshelves-with-books-in-library_w482_h725

The Board is a governmental actor, and therefore subject to the Constitution. In a draft outline, co-blogger Professor Cotter explains that the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause probably entitles a property owner to “just compensation” when their property—including intellectual property—is appropriated by the government. The Board’s proposal contemplates an condemnation-like power: “…the Board…hereby takes ownership.” Even if the Board has eminent domain or condemnation power under state or local law, its policy may still be ineffective at transferring ownership from student creators to the Board.

Federal law trumps conflicting state and local law. And 17 U.S.C. § 204 sharply limits how copyright ownership may be transferred:

A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.

Some courts and commentators view the phrase “by operation of law” as referring to transfers of copyrights that are limited in number, and depend upon the owner’s express or implied consent. See Taylor Corp. v. Four Seasons Greetings, LLC, 403 F.3d 958, 963 (8th Cir. 2005).

It is unclear from the Board’s draft policy whether they expect students to consent to the Board’s assertions of ownership, or whether the Board is considering a policy to provide “just compensation” to students whose copyrights are taken by the Board.

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Posted on February 4, 2013, in Copyright, IP Contracts, Other IP, Regulations, State Law and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Can Schools Seize Ownership of Students’ Copyrights?.

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