copyright question Dear Doc:

I have heard several of my friends say that university copyright policies are complicated and are a “bear” to deal with.  What, exactly, does that mean?

Your friend,

Dear Yogi:

Many colleges and universities have so-called “intellectual property policies” that they say apply to student-created work. Many of these policies say that what students create is actually owned by the school, despite the fact that students pay to attend, and are in no way employees of their schools. Some more enlightened schools just say that they have a right to use the student’s work without paying for it, but that the student owns the copyright. This is an area of great controversy.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Under U.S. Copyright Law, if you are an employee, your employer is actually the author of whatever you create on the job. If you’re not employed, then you must have a signed written agreement that gives rights to another party. No signed agreement – you own the copyright. Furthermore, that agreement must evidence “consideration” for the grant of rights, such as payment.

Universities have traditionally had “policies” about ownership of inventions and copyrighted works. They publish these, and sometimes they say that these policies are legally binding on not only the faculty, but also the graduate students and undergrads. Such was the case of Colorado University student Andy Duann, who snapped a wonderful photo of a bear falling out of a tree on campus on April 26, 2012.


Because Andy was a reporter for the student newspaper, and the school makes all students who work on the newspaper sign away their rights (seemingly without any consideration) when Andy sold the photo to the Boulder Daily Camera, and the Associated Press, the University sent their lawyers after him.

All’s well that ends well, sort of. You see, Andy joined the newspaper in mid-semester, and they never got around to forcing him to sign their agreement. After a brief kerfuffle, the University admitted this and admitted that Andy owns the rights. Not so, for the bear. After he was tranq-darted out of that tree and safely hauled away and released unharmed off-campus, he was hit by a car on May 3 while crossing a road. So while Andy’s rights may have survived the ordeal, his ursine friend was not so lucky.

The attorneys at LW&H deal with these issues every day. If you or your student is presented with a policy or agreement that looks out of line, give them a call. After all, Andy made more than the bare minimum when he sold that photo.

The “Doc”

— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.