Copywrong: Students often clash with administrators over copyright law

When Texas student Anthony Mazur was called into an assistant principal’s office in March and told to take down his online Flickr account — which displayed photos he took of school sports games and sold for $5 to interested parents — Mazur insisted that he owned the rights to his own work under U.S. copyright law.

After that, Assistant Principal Jeffrey Brown changed arguments, saying that Mazur had to take down the pictures because he had posted them with the intent to profit, Mazur said.

“I didn’t even really know what policy I was in violation of, because nothing ever said I couldn’t make a profit off my images,” said Mazur, who is a rising junior at Flower Mound High School.

Mazur and his parents contested the administration’s order to take down the website all the way to the Lewisville Independent School District’s school board. The board set aside the order at its June meeting, but questions still remain about what rights students in the district have to their work.

“The student will be allowed to use their own equipment to photograph LISD events open to the public, and from public viewing areas,” said Elizabeth Haas, a spokeswoman for the district, in an email. Haas refused to answer any follow-up questions or clarify the decision.

Mazur and district officials disagreed over whether he was given “special access” in photographing the games or instead took his photos from public areas, and the board has not defined the distinctions between either area, Mazur said.

Although he has reposted his Flickr and will continue selling images, Mazur, who bought his own camera and stopped using a school loaner camera as a result of the ordeal, is worried that the board will change the rules in the future.

In September, Flower Mound High School gave students in the yearbook class a contract to sign — essentially a “work for hire” agreement. It says the school district owns the copyright to any work students produce as part of the class.

Students who don’t sign the contract may be denied access to district-owned equipment and/or press credentials, except for school-specific assignments.

Mazur, who is now the photo editor of the yearbook, is refusing to sign the contract. He was denied a school camera to take pictures of a pep rally in September.

“It’s really frustrating,” he said. “It’s insane. I’m the photo editor of the yearbook and I can’t even go take pictures with the [school] camera.”

Mazur’s case highlights the confusion regarding copyright law in schools — students and administrators alike are often uncertain about who owns student works.

Students own the copyright to any works they create, unless the work was created as part of employment under “work for hire,” or they have signed an agreement stating otherwise, said Lindsey Forson, copyright and government affairs coordinator for Professional Photographers of America.

Students also own the copyright to their work even if they produce it as part of a class, said Leza Conliffe, a senior staff attorney in the Office of General Counsel for the National School Boards Association.

Mark Goodman, former director of the Student Press Law Center and current Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University in Ohio, believes it is “very common” for schools to have policies in place on photo ownership that are not legally enforceable.

“The fact that no one has contested these policies means that the courts haven’t had the occasion to rule on it, but that doesn’t mean that the policy is legally enforceable,” he said. “It just means it hasn’t been contested.”

Students often don’t contest these legally unenforceable policies due to a lack of resources and support, or because they’re scared of being seen as a “troublemaker,” Goodman said. He added that there are many situations in which students have legal grounds to sue their schools, but few actually do.


Mazur started tweeting about his fight with the school board with the hashtag #IAmAnthony, a play off of #JeSuisCharlie, which became an international symbol to support freedom of speech and of the press after the shootings at the office of the French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo.

Mazur’s hashtag exploded on Twitter with members of the artistic community and the general public using it to show support.

“I never expected the overwhelming, international, worldwide support for all this,” he said. “I was getting constant updates and comments from people. Overnight, I’ve been getting hundreds of retweets and postings and sharings, and my Flickr has almost 40,000 views, and news stations are showing up at my house.”

As photographers around the world rallied around Mazur, the larger issue of who exactly owns student work remains a point of contention between students and administrators in the Texas district.

In May, Tommy Ellington, student services executive director for the school district, wrote a directive to all school classes that use cameras to cease and desist the posting or selling of images taken on a school camera, Mazur said in an email.

“That was pretty outrageous, because what’s the point of taking a picture if you can’t share it?” he said.

That directive, and the new policy that yearbook students must sign a contract that gives the district the copyright to their work, contradicts the district’s policy on intellectual property, which states that students “retain all rights to work created as part of instruction or using district technology resources.”

Ellington did not respond to requests for comment, and district spokeswoman Haas declined to elaborate on the work-for-hire agreement, other than to say that the district believes its policy is legal because students can still actively participate in class if they don’t sign the form — they will just have to use their personal camera equipment.

Mazur’s situation is unusual, Goodman said, because of the “very intentional” infringement on the part of the administration.

“When schools take these actions, it’s largely out of ignorance,” he said. “They want to be able to control how information is used. I think schools have become very focused on public relations and their image, and they see this as just another way to control it.”

When confronted with the law, most schools will concede that they do not own the rights to students’ work, Goodman said.

In 2012, University of Colorado student Andy Duann’s photo of a bear falling from a tree on campus became a viral hit, becoming a meme and gaining media attention from across the country.

The adviser for the CU Independent gave permission for other media outlets to use the story, not realizing that Duann did not acknowledge the campus newspaper’s claim to own the copyright.

Duann did not sign a release granting such rights to the university, and the photo was taken independent of an assignment from the campus newspaper.

The university acknowledged that Duann owned the copyright after adviser Gil Asakawa realized that Duann had not signed a release. The university agreed to pay Duann $250, which he could use as a credit toward his tuition.

Students should create their own agreements as to who owns the rights to their work done as part of the campus media versus photos taken on their own time, Goodman said.

‘The law is the law’

The U.S. Copyright Office states that the creator’s work is under copyright protection from the moment it is created and “fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or a device.”

The law also doesn’t distinguish between public and private high school or college students, Goodman said.

“The law is the law, and schools, despite what they think, can’t supersede the law because they think it should be different,” Goodman said.

Changing a student’s work through prior restraint, particularly if the alteration is done without student consent, is also a form of copyright infringement, said Vincent DeMiero, past president of the Washington Journalism Education Association and a member of the JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee, in an email.

If a school administrator tells a student journalist that publication is contingent upon the student making requested alterations to his or her work, that would be a form of de facto copyright infringement, DeMiero said.

“In a sense, the principal of a school is analogous to the mayor of a small town (the campus community), but no mayor wields the kind of power over the local editor of a newspaper the way a principal does over a student editor,” he said.

‘Treat the university like a client’

Student photographers don’t have to choose between retaining the copyright to their work and allowing the school to utilize it, Forson said.

Students can give the school written permission to use their work via an unlimited usage license, but they can still use the photos for their own portfolio, or any other purpose.

Forson recommends that students proactively avoid copyright infringements to prevent losing the value of their work and avoid the cost and effort it takes to hire an attorney.

“[Students should] treat the university like a client,” Forson said. Sitting down with school officials and making sure an agreement is reached on copyright issues will prevent the school from utilizing the work in an inappropriate way, she said.

If students just hand over the images, school officials might assume that they can do whatever they want with the photos, Forson said.

Paul Wintruba, a senior at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, was walking through campus one day in spring 2015 when he saw a photo he took — and published on the school newspaper’s website — of a statue on campus in a brochure made by the Office of Residence Life.

Officials didn’t agree when Wintruba told them that taking and publishing photos that the office didn’t own was illegal, so he went to the head of student life, John Locke.

Locke originally told Wintruba that he thought the university can use anything the student newspaper publishes, but Wintruba said after he explained that the paper is independent and the university is governed by copyright law, Locke agreed to look into a solution for the university’s photo use over the summer.

RMU is in the process of examining its policies regarding intellectual property. The university plans to start a public information campaign to educate the university community about rights and responsibilities under copyright law, said Jonathan Potts, a spokesman for the university.

“This particular incident — it was honestly someone who didn’t realize what they were doing,” he said.

Wintruba called it “blatant cluelessness” on the university’s part.

“I think personally that one of the main issues is that in the digital age … to steal a picture is three clicks of a mouse,” he said.

The university did not offer to pay Wintruba for the image, he said. He has decided to no longer press the issue, he said.

“My concern is that this doesn’t happen to other students,” he said. Wintruba said he has many photographer friends who have had their images stolen, primarily by local media and bloggers.

Goodman cautioned students to not simply presume that what someone else says about copyright law is correct — rather, they should make the effort to learn about copyright law on their own and be vocal in defense of their rights.

“The ultimate harm is control over the work is in control of the school if they own the copyright, and if we believe that students learn best by making their own decisions, and students deserve to benefit from the work that they create, it’s the wrong thing for schools to do,” he said.

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will contributed to this report.