A & E Canadian Classroom is running a student essay competition titled 2015 Lives that Make a Difference. The contest offers cash prizes to schools and to children who submit original essays that identify and discuss a person who has had a significant impact on Canadian society. The contest is no doubt laudable for encouraging children to write, and on a worthwhile theme. Schools from across the country are probably encouraging students from grades 5 to 12 to submit their work to this contest.
While the contest may be laudable, the way in which it deals with student intellectual property rights in their work is not. The home page for the contest features a fillable form through which a student’s 300 word essay can be submitted. At the bottom of the form is a check box with the words: “I agree to allow my child (named above) to participate in the A&E Network® Canadian Lives That Make a Difference Essay Contest. I am in accordance with the terms outlined in the rules.” There is no hyperlink from either of the words “terms” or “rules” that would take a parent to the rules to which they are agreeing. This on its own is a poor practice. A parent interested in the rules has to search elsewhere on the page for the tab labelled “official rules”. On the issue of intellectual property, these rules provide:
“All essays become the property of A&E Television Networks and will not be acknowledged or returned. Entrants acknowledge and agree that they waive all rights of any kind whatsoever to their entries and that their entries become the property of A&E Television Networks, which thereby has the right to edit, adapt, modify, reproduce, publish, promote and otherwise use entries in any way they see fit without further compensation, except where prohibited by law.”
Contest winners will not receive their prizes unless they execute an “assignment of rights within 10 days of notification attempt”.
Clearly, if A & E is to publish winning entries on their website or feature them in other media they will need permission to do so. A & E may also be mining the contest to get a sense of which public figures are inspiring kids across the country. To this end, they probably also want to insulate themselves from potential lawsuits if they later produce content about some of the individuals featured in student essays. It is therefore entirely reasonable for A & E to address IP issues in the contest rules. What is less reasonable is to require students to surrender all IP rights in their essays as a condition of participation. The quid pro quo for this wholesale surrender of IP rights by potentially thousands of kids across the country is the chance to win one of only 4 student prizes.
It is possible for A & E to hold the contest, to insulate itself from legal risk, and to get kids excited about writing without pillaging their intellectual property rights. The perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free license is a device that is much used and well known. It allows the licensee to make full and free use of a work while still leaving the copyright with its author. This means that the author of the work would be free to use it in other contexts and for other purposes (which might include, for example, sharing it with friends of family through social media). It is not as if any of these essays are likely to have a market value – after submission, most will quickly be forgotten by their authors. But there is an issue here of respect.
We have all experienced the inundation of copyright notices in relation to films, music, and other content. We are told that we have to respect authors and creators, that copyright infringement is analogous to theft or piracy. What we hear much less about is the exploitation of unequal bargaining power as well as unequal knowledge and resources by corporations that arrogate to themselves more rights in the intellectual property of others than is necessary. There is something fundamentally problematic about bludgeoning kids with dire warnings about respecting the IP rights of others while at the same time showing total disregard for their own rights as creators.
And lest this all be about A & E (the terms and conditions of other similar contests and publishing “opportunities” offered to students bear examination), there should also be some onus on school boards to consider the terms and conditions under which students are encouraged to apply to these sorts of contests. It would be helpful if they used their power as conduits for student participants to insist that terms and conditions are fair and respectful of the students’ rights as creators.