Copyright Rules For Schools

By Edwin C. Darden

Stop for a moment to consider how peculiar it is that U.S. law protects intellectual property. It seems bizarre that the fruits of imagination can be legally owned like any other possession, and the creator can prevent others from trespassing on thought property unless they pay.

Yes, the literary, musical, artistic, or commercial representation has to be original, captured in a tangible form, publicized as belonging to the creator, plus a few other technicalities. But follow the road map, and the masterpiece has legal status. Whenever a legally owned work is infringed upon, chances are a cease-and-desist letter and possibly a lawsuit will follow, because money --  and sometimes, big money --  is at stake.

For school districts, then, the question is how to take advantage of cultural riches for learning purposes without suffering a financial setback every time a student receives a lesson or the school board approves a sports team name.

This column and the next form a two-part series focusing on the rough-and-tumble legal world of copyrights and trademarks, also known as intellectual property law. The bright spot is that there are several safe harbors for educators. The dim reality is that too often school officials, well-meaning but uninformed, find themselves far from shore.

We will start with copyrights and proceed to trademarks. Patents, the other intellectual property topic that might be relevant in limited public school circumstances, are excluded.

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