Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Intellectual Property ~ Who Owns It?

The Sunday, November 15, 2009 issue of The New York Times featured an article by Winnie Hu titled "Selling Lessons Online Raises Cash and Questions." You can find the article at

The article reminded me of a situation that occurred several years ago. There was a school employee who was working on a higher degree. There was another employee who had created a fair number of presentations and documents for the school. This particular employee was also resigning at the end of the school year to take a job in another district. The employee working on the degree had used some of the other employee's materials in his graduate assignments. The employee who had created them complained, but was told that anything created for the school district was the property of the school district. They determined that the materials she created did not belong to her. When she left the district, she had to leave all papers and disks of all created materials.

This had never come up before. We were all astounded to think that documents, lesson plans, projects, worksheets, tests, quizzes, and everything else we had worked so hard on, actually belonged to the school district.

When I retired, I left everything behind. It was actually pretty easy because my home already had enough school clutter. But every once in a while, I'll still find a test or worksheet tucked away in a folder on my computer. A few weeks ago, I found an Algebra project I had created hidden in a folder in the back of a file cabinet. I had written it years ago.

Now, after reading this article in the New York Times, I find that teachers are buying and selling their lesson plans and worksheets.

I can understand why a teacher might buy a good lesson plan. It takes so much time to create a good one, and if one is already made, and it's available for a reasonable price, why go to all the work of creating a new one?

I can also understand why a teacher might sell a good lesson plan. Teacher salaries are notoriously low. And yet teachers spend a great deal of their own money purchasing items for their classrooms. If selling lesson plans supplements the money a teacher spends on equipment or books, then it seems s/he is simply being rewarded for his or her work.

Of course, the critical issue here is the fact that the school districts these teachers work for might actually own the intellectual properties these teachers are selling.

And of course, there are the ethical questions. Some how all this just doesn't seem right. If I've written a fantastic lesson plan, it seems like it should be mine to do with as I want. It seems I should be able to sell it, give it away, or even take it with me to a different school district.

But there's also something that doesn't seem right about teachers selling lesson plans. I don't know what it is. As a teacher, I swapped ideas with other teachers all the time. But the idea of selling my idea to those teachers, well, it seems to lower the standards most teachers set for themselves.

I guess I really have mixed feelings about this. What do you think?


  1. Academia is the one place where the exchange of ideas should be free. Buying a lesson plan as opposed to creating one (or trading with another teacher), cheapens the educational experience. George Bernard Shaw said it best: “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

  2. To Tamahome Jenkins: I agree. I was thinking last night after I wrote this about students who purchase term papers from internet. I know how upset teachers get about this. It seems teachers buying lesson plans is pretty much the same thing. It does cheapen the educational experience. I actually learned a lot by creating my own plans, just as I would expect students to learn a lot by creating their own term papers.