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Who Owns Your Ideas?

The Mattel toy company, makers of Barbie, is suing the company that produces the competing Bratz doll line.

The dispute here centers around where and when the designer of Bratz came up with the concept. Mattel claims it was during the time he worked for them, thus giving them the rights to the dolls.

I really don’t care about a fight between two toy companies but the issue of who owns intellectual property is one that comes up occasionally in our school district.

For example, one of my colleagues maintains a site for the teachers at his school (with an invitation to those in other buildings) to share a variety of thoughts, ideas, materials, basically whatever they feel like posting.

It’s hosted from an account he pays for and, like many wikis, it requires a registration to post information, although anyone can come in and read what’s been added.

The about page notes that the material is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike license.

We had an interesting discussion recently when he asked about copyright issues, specifically about whether our district could claim ownership of the materials teachers had posted to the site.

I didn’t have many answers. I’m not an intellectual property lawyer and I long ago gave up trying to pretend that I understand all the details of copyright law.

However, there may be some connection between the Barbie-Bratz legalities and the creative content produced by teachers, especially as more educators post their work to the web.

Does the fact that you work for a company or school district mean that any ideas created during the time they pay you become their intellectual property?

If I was an hourly worker, I would think that something I produced off the clock was mine. But most of us are on salary, so are our creative processes part of the mix 24/7?

What if I produced some materials during summer break, tried them out in my classroom in the fall, and then wanted to package them for sale to other teachers?

Supposed I started offering paid workshops using concepts repackaged from my experience in the classroom and what I’ve learned from others (there are plenty of examples of this!).

Occasionally there are stories in the news about intellectual property disputes between inventors and their companies, professors and their universities (and students) but they never seem offer a clear answer to the many questions in this area.

If you have any thoughts on the matter, or especially can offers any links to information or examples, please leave them in the comments or send them directly.

This is an interesting issue that potentially could affect many educators as our professional lives online evolve.


  1. Dave

    When I worked for a defense contractor, I had to sign a sheet saying that they had first dibbs on any major ideas I had while working there (and for a time after I left). In a communications law class I took later, we touched on this, but that class is getting fuzzy. There is a concept called “works for-hire” or something like that. The idea is that if someone pays an employee to create something, the creative work belongs to the employer, not the employee. (which would make that defense contractor’s form almost unnecessary except as proof that employees were aware of the rules)

    In the situation you mention, the teacher has unintentionally made the situation very complicated. He is almost definitely combining works that he has made for his job with other ideas he’s had. Normally, I’d say that this combination is un-distributable until it’s sorted out, unless you want to risk being sued by the schools. (Also, it would be almost impossible to sue someone who used his Creative Commons work believing it to be CC, even if the teacher shouldn’t have said it was CC.)

    However! There are some legal exceptions for education, and you could possibly argue that the school’s property belongs to taxpayers, Freedom of Information Act request it, etc etc.

    That’s all technical details. The real important issue is that anyone who sues a school is asking for a PR firestorm. The teacher’s in luck, though, because the only thing worse than suing a school would be suing a teacher. : ) I’m not a lawyer, but I wouldn’t be concerned about lawsuits.

  2. J.D. Williams

    Here’s something else to consider that might make the water a bit murkier. I believe that most (or at least some, I should use a less general term) school AUP’s say that they “own” any data transmitted out from the school network.

    So if the teachers are posting to the wiki from school, the AUP that they signed could be a factor in this type of a controversy.

  3. Scott McLeod

    Great post raising an important issue. This might help on the ‘work for hire’ issue:


    It really depends on the nature of the work, the agreement (or lack thereof), etc.

  4. Miguel Guhlin

    Great questions so I felt compelled to look them up and jot down the answers for future reference…

  5. PLCweb

    So if you created this blog originally on a county computer, does that mean all our comments belong to your county?

    If you, at any time, read this blog from your county computer, does that mean all our comments belong to your county?

    If you created this blog, while under contract from your county, does that mean all our comments belong to your county?

    Is information fungible like money in a marriage?

    It becomes insidious. Does your county school system own AOL because some teachers access their AOL email via county computers during the work day?

  6. Eric

    I don’t have any real answers, either, but one thing that hasn’t been raised yet is the distinction between an idea and the fixed expression of that idea. Only fixed expressions can be protected under copyright law. Exactly how this impacts the discussion, I’m not sure.

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