Student rights and academic values

Do students own the copyright in the works they create as part of their education? Generally the answer is yes, but we have recently been reminded of some troubling exceptions. The University of Hawaii’s “Academy of Creative Media” is a film school that insists that all of its students completely assign their copyright in all of their works to the school. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a story about this rule here, and they include links to several other comments, as well as to the Hawaiian Academy’s agreement and an FAQ they use to justify the practice. It also links to a story about a similar policy at the University of Southern California.

Student rights are often ignored on college campuses, perhaps because of long-standing practices that stretch back to before copyright vested automatically when an author fixed her work. But we need to deal seriously with student rights, especially now that digital networks give us so much flexibility for making class works available to the public. There are real pedagogical advantages to having students work for a larger audience, but there are also opportunities to abuse the rights students now have from the moment their works are fixed in a tangible medium. Part of learning how to use these new technologies is developing policies that respect those rights.

The policies of the University of Hawaii and USC undermine the respect students deserve. Even more startling is the justification found in Hawaii’s FAQ – that this policy is consistent with the University’s claim that most faculty works are also works made for hire. Most universities do not claim ownership of faculty works, even though there is a stronger argument for that claim than for demanding rights in student works. Courts have even suggested that the work for hire rules do not apply to faculty writings, although those rulings are old and in doubt. To claim student copyrights, however, these two universities can’t even rely on work for hire; they need to compel students to sign an agreement that gives the copyright to the school.

Does the proximity of these schools to Hollywood justify their grab of student rights? As one commentator points out, at the very least, students who are subjected to these avaricious and rigid policies will be better prepared to work in the commercial film industry. These seems like a clash between academic values, which, contrary to what some in the content industries claim, usually try to teach respect for rights in creative works, and commercial values that see creators’ rights as one more commodity to be acquired as cheaply as possible.