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Ask Author Law

Who owns the copyright in this teacher's book?

Q: I am a third grade teacher who prepares many creative lessons for my students. I decided to write and self-publish a book about how to be a great teacher. I was telling some of the other teachers in the faculty room and word of my plans reached the principal. He stopped by my classroom and told me that the school district will own the copyright in my book because they are my employer. I am stunned. I have already invested a lot of money, time, and effort and I want to go ahead. But I am afraid that the school district will sue me if I go ahead. Can they?

A: My immediate though about what you should say to this misguided principal is not repeatable. He is wrong, wrong, wrong! I am outraged on your behalf. Sadly, many educators are ignorant about copyright. Unless writing books about teaching is part of your job description you are the owner of the copyright in your book from the moment you have “fixed” it in a “tangible medium of expression.”

Your principal is probably misunderstanding the work made for hire (WMFH) doctrine that creates two exceptions under United States copyright law for initial copyright ownership by the author of a work. The first WMFH exception to the rule that the author is the automatic copyright owner for works she creates is when an employee is expected to write as part of her job description.

Section 101 (1) of the U.S. Copyright Act (Title 17 or the United States Code) defines work made for hire as “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.” In the case where an employee writes as part of her job, the employer is considered to be the legal author and copyright owner. You were hired to teach, not to write books. Therefore, you are the owner of the copyright in your book about teaching.

You have also asked if the school district can sue you if you go ahead and publish your book. Unfortunately, it’s entirely possible for a misguided individual or organization to file a frivolous lawsuit. However, I doubt if your local school board’s legal counsel would agree to file. In your case, the risk of facing a lawsuit over this misinformation is low. Please don’t be discouraged by this principal’s ignorance of copyright law. Good luck with your book!

You might need that luck if you should decide to submit your book to a textbook publisher, however.That’s because of the the second definition of WMFH in the Copyright Act, “a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. 17 U.S.C. § 101 (2).

Many academic and textbook publishers do try to obtain the copyright in authors’ works in their contracts. As a writer, you don’t want to sign a publishing contract with WMFH language unless you are truly willing to give up your copyright. There are a few legitimate reasons for publishers to own the copyrights, but, in my opinion, those reasons are few and far between and writers should avoid WMFH contracts whenever possible.

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