A copyright trap for the digital age

A copyright trap for the digital age

(N.Y.) There was a time when copyright infringement might have been about the last thing that would become a source of worry for most school administrators.

Today, not so much.

Along with all the promise that the internet offers educators—from instant communication to boundless curriculum resources—there is also the ever present danger that either a staff member or a student will use protected material without getting permission.

Best practices, attorneys will say, it is important for schools to conduct training sessions over copyright issues and instill the message that nothing should be downloaded from the web and put into use without first making sure of its ownership.

There is, however, increasingly complex settings where copyright infringement can become an issue—sometimes under surprising circumstances.

One of the more important rulings in this arena took place last year and was issued by the Second Circuit Court of New York.

At issue was a claim by Great Minds, a small, nonprofit education publishing entity, that FedEx Office and Print Services, Inc. violated a copyright the firm held over a math program.

On the surface it would have seemed to be clear cut—Great Minds developed and owned the math content and FedEx facilities in Michigan and in New York had reproduced the materials without authorization.

A closer look, however, showed that the FedEx service stores in question were merely carrying out print orders placed by school districts. Further, the math program had been offered by the nonprofit to state officials for use in an online library intended to help classroom teachers provide instructional materials aligned with new curriculum standards.

In New York, officials used part of their $700 million Race to the Top grant to pay content writers for the materials under the condition that one copy of the program would be made freely available to the schools. This open content license agreement was a condition that Great Minds had accepted some years before.

But attorneys for Great Minds argued that because FedEx, a for-profit corporation and was benefitting from printing the licensed math material, the copyright had been violated. That is, lawyers said, Great Minds would not have objected if the schools had used their own copy machines instead of FedEx to publish the instructional materials.

The courts ruled against Great Minds, finding that schools had a right to the math content and that Great Minds had not qualified that right to prohibit a third party use.

“Because FedEx acted as the mere agent of licensee school districts when it reproduced Great Minds’ materials, and because there is no dispute that the school districts themselves sought to use Great Minds’ materials for permissible purposes, we conclude that FedEx’s activities did not breach the license or violate Great Minds’ copyright,” the three-judge panel said in its ruling.

The question now becomes, will providers of open content re-evaluate that availability and perhaps make it harder for schools to utilize popular, well written material?

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