Could school districts own their students’ work?

PGCPSLast year, we posted about the emerging issue of whether or not teachers should be allowed to sell their lessons plans for a profit ( More recently, this issue has cropped up in the greater Washington DC area.

Prince George’s County Public Schools has recently tabled a proposal designed to gain ownership of all material “created by teachers, students and employees before, during and after school hours.” As they floated the idea, backlash from teachers and other concerned citizens caused PGCPS to rethink the speed at which the proposal was moving forward.  Currently, the district is seeking legal advice.

In terms of ownership of work created by teachers, precedent is a bit nebulous, but tends to favor the school districts over the teachers.  The principle of “work-for-hire” generally favors employers, and an even more specific case in New York went in favor of the district. A 2004 federal appellate court case in New York ruled that “tests, quizzes, homework problems, and other teaching materials” were works made for hire owned by the district and that the “academic tradition” of granting authors ownership of their own scholarly work cannot be applied to materials not explicitly intended for purchase.

The issue of a district owning the work of students, on the other hand, is even less clear, but some legal experts have suggested that a district owning the work of minors seems far-fetched, especially when taking into consideration how such restrictions would threaten student creativity. San Francisco copyright lawyer Lawrence Townsend argues that “the students are mostly under the age of 18 and federal law protects their rights.” Townsend added that unless a parent or guardian signs off on it, what a student creates belongs to the student and not the school.

For now, PGCPS has put the issue on hold, but it seems likely that there will continue to be more of these sort of cases popping up, and probably winding up in courts. With the ease of sharing teaching materials online through sites such as, more and more districts will also likely be eager to articulate some sort of clear guidelines for their employees.

Most recently, House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert County, MD) introduced legislation in the Maryland legislature that would prohibit school boards from claiming students’ work.  Mr. O’Donnell explained that he knew that PGCPS had pulled the proposal for now in order to amend it, but he wanted to ensure that no other school district in Maryland would attempt a similar reform.

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