Monday, November 16, 2009

Educational Entrepreneurship

My husband pointed out this article in yesterday's New York Times. There are many teachers in his family, and he thought it was interesting to learn that

[T]thousands of teachers are cashing in on a commodity they used to give away, selling lesson plans online for exercises ... While some of this extra money is going to buy books and classroom supplies in a time of tight budgets, the new teacher-entrepreneurs are also spending it on dinners, mortgage payments, credit card bills, vacation travel and even home renovation, leading some school officials to raise questions over who owns material developed for public school classrooms.

There are philosophical issues as well as ownership issues. One professor of education quoted in the article feels that "online selling cheapens what teachers do and undermines efforts to build sites where educators freely exchange ideas and lesson plans."

The article doesn't explicitly raise the issue of work for hire, but I think it should have been mentioned. Teachers are employees, and one could argue that the work they do in the course of their employment belongs to their employers. The Copyright Office has a useful circular on work for hire, but it doesn't mention teachers, and one can also refer to section 101 of the Copyright Act for a definition of work for hire. It's a slippery concept, however, and the law is by no means settled. I have always believed that I hold the copyright in the original materials I have created for my Advanced Legal Research course (topic outlines, exercises, etc.). I am happy to share my materials with others, but I like to be credited. Does my university believe that it holds the copyright to my course materials? I don't know, because the question has never come up. When I started teaching, I solicited syllabi from other legal research instructors and built upon them. Would I have paid for them? I'm not sure, but it wasn't an option in those days. One of my colleagues suggested that she could envision a situation where one had to subscribe to get updated course materials, but where older materials were available for free.

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