Who owns student-produced content?
Scenario: Student journalists have just completed their first converged media assignments and are just about ready for publication across the various platforms. Several indicate they think their work is good enough to share with other groups.Can they legally or ethically do that with repercussion?
By Mark Goodman
The question of who owns the copyright of work created for scholastic media is complex, but at some point, advisers need to answer that question. The sooner that is decided, the better for all.
One thing for certain, Mark Goodman, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center and current Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, said it is almost impossible for a school to claim copyright in the works students create.
“Absent a written assignment of rights signed by both student and parent (if the student is a minor),” Goodman said, “students retain the copyright to works they create.”
That’s not because public schools can’t own copyright, he said, it’s because students are not employees and the works they create are not “works for hire.” The fact they may be getting credit for a class does not change that.
If I were advising a student publication about dealing with its copyright ownership issues from this point forward, I would say the best tactic is to have every staff member (and a parent/guardian if they are a minor) sign something at the beginning of the year that says they are assigning the copyright in the works they submit to the publication to THAT PUBLICATION, or giving a permanent license to the student publication to use those works.”
In addition, there are real downsides to a school owning the copyright to student works, Goodman said. For example, if a school owns it, it can control how it is used. That inherently includes extensive censorship rights.
“If I were advising a student publication about dealing with its copyright ownership issues from this point forward,” Goodman said, “I would say the best tactic is to have every staff member (and a parent/guardian if they are a minor) sign something at the beginning of the year that says they are assigning the copyright in the works they submit to the publication to THAT PUBLICATION, or giving a permanent license to the student publication to use those works.”
He said it is possible for an student publication to own a copyright but that doesn’t make it belong to the school.
“Insert in your publication handbook or policy document a statement that states your student publication staff has authority over the copyrights owned by or licensed to the publication,” Goodman said. “If someone ever uses your publication’s contents without permission in violation of the copyright, you’ll have clear authority for asking them to stop.”
If student work is already distributed and others use it without permission, Goodman said he would recommend advisers and students act as if the publication itself owns the copyright, whether there is written documentation or not. A letter to the infringer requesting they take the material down immediately would be appropriate.
Goodman developed a model statement of who owns student works.
Goodman also said the SPLC’s Mike Hiestand wrote an excellent piece on copyright ownership on the SPLC blog .
For additional ownership resources:
• Now that it’s online… is it still mine
• The editors’ checklist (se section of copyright and ownership of work)
• Your questions answered: Ownership of content
• Model yearbook copyright warning
• SPLC model yearbook staff member license
• Prince George’s considers copyright policy that takes ownership of students’ work
• Maryland advisers react to school district’s proposal to control copyright of student work
• Protecting your yearbook: How to register the copyright to prevent piracy
• Registering your yearbook’s copyright (directions)
• Reddit’s press guidelines: Get permission from Reddditors before using their content in a ist
• Handle your yearbook copyright issues before you find the book for sale online
• Principals, advisers and students face misconceptions about who ‘owns’ student work
• Back to school checklist: who owns what?