Who owns the work? The person who created it.

Imagine this situation: A teacher, holding a student’s recent assignment, approaches the writer. It’s really good, the teacher says, praising the student. The student beams with pride and asks whether it might be good enough to get published.
“Oh, definitely,” the teacher replies. “And that’s exactly what our school plans to do since we own this piece of writing.”

The student, astonished, sputters out a response. “But why would you say you own this?” the student says. “I’m the one who wrote it!”

The teacher simply smiles and says, “Yes, but you used a school computer and printed it on our printer, so we own it.”

“But what about copyright?” the student asks.

“Yeah, well you did the work in my class, so I’m like your boss,” the teacher answered.

Fuming, the student ponders the law and situation until the end of school, when he darts out of class to check his rights.

Does this situation sound ridiculous? Most people would say yes. Yet that’s exactly the explanation student journalists hear when they’re told the publication, website or broadcast owns their photos, videos or stories. The fact is the creator owns the copyright. Unless the students are getting paid for their work — and neither course credit or even cookies count as payment — the individual maintains the ownership. So, if the president comes to town, a student takes an amazing photo of him, and the Associated Press wants to buy it, the student can make money, even if he or she used a school camera to take the photo.

There’s a solution that can preserve the rights of student journalists while also allowing the publication, Web site or broadcast the opportunity to be the first to publish the work and to do so for a period of time — even after the student has moved or graduated. Each adviser should work with his or her editor or producer to create a contract that spells out the rights and terms of using the student’s work for publication or broadcast. Conveniently, the Student Press Law Center has developed just such a model contract to use as-is or as a guideline for your own. Even more conveniently, the model contract is available as a PDF to download at the NSPA website under the portion labeled The Wheel, resources you don’t want to reinvent.

At the beginning of each term, review the contract with new staff members and have them sign your contract. A parent will have to sign for a student who is a minor. This practice solves the problem of what to do when a student takes a photo for the yearbook but wants to post it first on his or her Facebook page. You can mandate that when working for student media, right of first publication belongs to the publication or broadcast. An added benefit is that students and their parents know the student’s rights, and everyone models the appropriate use of copyrighted images, video and text. And that’s a good lesson for everyone.

One final suggestion: If students can borrow school equipment like cameras for personal use (taking a senior portrait, a weekend trip, or to a friend’s birthday party), consider a user agreement between student/parents and the equipment owner that spells out procedures for check-out and check-in. Remember to be clear about the condition the equipment should be in upon return (cleaned, charged, etc.) and what happens if damage occurs. It’s better to have a policy in place before something occurs than to get stuck with missing or broken equipment.

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