College ©onfusion

STUDENTS' WORK is theirs to do with as they will! - so Professor Adrian Monck, Head of Journalism at City University, tells the Freelance (see his letter). Following questions raised in London Freelance Branch meetings earlier this year, we investigated the issue of copyright on work done by students while enrolled on journalism or photography courses.

Student Phil Cawood with some of his work...
Student Phil Cawood with some of his work at the Batley School of Art graduate show in Brick Lane, just round the corner from Freelance Towers. Phil admitted he had "no idea" about the copyright position on his work while he was enrolled as a student
Some digging around revealed a complicated picture - some colleges insist students assign copyright on all their work to their college when they sign the application form, others don't ask for copyright. The Freelance could find no national standards on student copyright among UK universities. Writers Guild General Secretary Bernie Corbett says: "Students are very vulnerable - desperate to get into university... Students have never been told about copyright - they didn't read documents carefully when they signed up."

Perhaps we should follow the example of the Freelance Industrial Council's Adam Christie: "I was appalled when I signed up as a student in 1985 that when I registered I was expected to sign away all rights in everything I wrote as part of the course... I crossed out the relevant clause, which I don't think anyone noticed and ©'ed every essay I submitted. It took a while before one of the staff noticed... I said that... I wanted to retain the rights just in case they had a future value. Nothing more was said."

Many universities and colleges neglect to educate students on their copyright. Belinda Otas, a student of Journalism at Middlesex University, who is taking an NUJ course in copyright soon, said; "Most students are not aware of their rights... at my university, I am really not sure how it works either. I asked around but didn't get anything." Sarah Nottingham, a student of practical journalism at Cardonald College in Glasgow, said she knew about copyright because one of her lecturers - an NUJ activist - took the initiative in keeping students in the know. Other students I spoke to at this year's NUJ conference felt there was "no time" to deal with copyright issues in their courses.

Clear information on students' copyright is harder to find than it should be. Some, like the University of the Arts London, have their copyright policy online: www.arts.ac.uk/library/3768.htm - but it took several calls and emails to turn up Goldsmith College's policy and the above quote from City.

The universities' enthusiasm for copyright grabs seems to stem from their dealings with patents on scientific discoveries. While patents are a very different animal to copyright, university bureaucracies often lump the two together. Goldsmiths claims ownership of "patentable inventions" software, lectures and designs, but "for the avoidance of doubt the College does not intend to assert any possible ownership of copyright" in written work.

Bernie Corbett cites "half a dozen instances where students write something of commercial value, " usually scripts or treatments for TV companies. The issue comes up at copyright clearance. "Every time the Writers Guild take up the case... the university have backed away at 100 miles an hour... It's plainly completely ridiculous to claim copyright." Universities are "not really interested in this as a way of generating income... It would be ideal if they had a think about this and didn't ask students to sign up to something unenforceable."

Institutions with less of a research culture tend to have a more realistic approach. The University of the Arts London states that "the copyright or design right in works which are the sole creation of the student belongs to that student... the student still owns copyright even if the University exercises its option to exhibit or retain the original piece of work. "

LFB member James Perrin, a recent graduate of The University of the Arts London's  Postgraduate Certificate in Photography course, recalled that it dealt with  asserting copyright and that it offered free seminars with copyright lawyers. "We were assured our images would not be used for commercial gain, although we never got this in writing." James added that the Higher National Diploma course at Westminster City College also has a lot on copyright, and that the Association of Photographers can recommended photography courses that big up copyright.

In contrast to student copyright, the copyright of lecturers on their teaching material is usually spelled out clearly in their contracts, which are often influenced by national agreements between universities and teaching unions.

  • The NUJphoto network reports that the practice of issuing press passes in exchange for free student labour is widespread. Union photographers frequently turn up to a shoot to find unpaid students on "work experience" months after they've graduated. See also Libby Purves' Times piece on "the slaves of showbiz" - linked from this piece online.
  • Inclusion of a journalism course in this article should not be taken as endorsement by the Freelance.
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