Tuesday, July 14, 2020
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Lesson-sharing sites & copyright law

Many teachers have been encouraged to make their lessons available online, which has led some to question the intellectual property rights they may have in the lessons, we read in Education Week.

Teachers Pay Teachers.com logo (company website)

On the one hand, the materials teachers produce in connection with their employment at a pubic school can be considered “work product,” owned by the school—completely. Sites like Teachers Pay Teachers.com, which considers itself a “marketplace where teachers share, sell, and buy original educational resources,” may therefore be providing an income for teachers who are “stealing” copyrighted material that technically belongs to the public schools.

Nobody’s complaining, mind you. Especially, the copyright owners aren’t complaining. At least they’re not suing the teachers for infringing on their rights. And copyright law, as I understand it, is 100 percent about protecting the rights of intellectual property owners. If the public schools don’t complain (i.e., sue the teachers), there is no copyright infringement, by definition.

One reason schools aren’t complaining is that the idea has taken root due to the benefits. It costs the schools nothing, unless you consider lost intellectual property rights something that could actually be recovered, and sites like Teachers Pay Teachers.com offer customers “immediate access to a world of expertise and more time to focus on students and teaching.”

“Because of TpT [everything in education, even commercial ventures, has an acronym], I feel like I have a thousand teachers in my classroom every day. I know my students are getting a much better education because of TpT!” writes Cyndie D., a teacher who purportedly uses the site.

But on the other hand, some of the lesson plans teachers buy may fall under the fair use doctrine, which says that if I buy a book, I can make copies for the students in my classroom. The Internet has blurred this line substantially, because making copies available for students, these days, means posting it on the class website, which is, because of how the Internet works, available to non-students as well.

In November 2012, Voxitatis reported that a federal court had dismissed with prejudice a lawsuit brought by a video maker and copyright holder against a UCLA professor who had posted a video, which he had legally purchased, on the Web for his students to use.

Now, if I want to package material that I buy in a product that I then offer for sale or receive any compensation for, it’s a different matter and I would have to negotiate those rights with the copyright holder. But using it in a classroom is allowed, as far as I understand it.

Teachers today don’t have to make copies; all they have to do is provide a link, which can’t point to a page on Teachers Pay Teachers.com, since student-users won’t have the password used by the teacher to access that material she’s making available to students in her classroom.

Providing a link, though, means anybody in the world can access the material, and then it’s not fair use anymore, is it?

Teachers can’t control all the copies made available via the Internet, and even the Creative Commons license, which we use on this site, wouldn’t help if a case like this ever got to court.

But teachers, generally speaking, are on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers.com to collaborate, not to compete, with other teachers. Schools are doing everything they can to encourage that collaboration, and the Internet has given them the technology. If copyright laws, originally written in 1909 and last revised in 1976, don’t figure in the Internet yet, teachers are going to develop their own solutions for collaboration.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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