The internet is a great resource for teachers. The TES Resource Bank receives 500 new teaching ideas a month, uploaded by users for other teachers to share. November ideas offered by Woodlands junior school (www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk) include Stir-up Sunday on November 26, the last Sunday before Advent and the traditional day for making Christmas pudding. When you prepare a fantastic idea like a Stir-up Sunday assembly, and want to post it on the web to inspire other teachers, what are the risks and how do you protect your work?
Do you actually own the material? Normally, the author is the first owner of copyright. However, if the work is created in the course of employment then, unless your contract says something different, the first owner of copyright will be your employer, usually the school or education authority.
The Conditions of Service for School Teachers in England and Wales does not cover copyright and nor do the contracts of most schools and local authorities. For example, the East Riding of Yorkshire council's sample standard teaching contract makes no mention of copyright. So anything a teacher produces "in the course of employment" will be owned by the employer.
What exactly does that phrase mean? A teacher writing a novel at weekends (as former children's laureate Michael Morpurgo started out) is clearly not writing in the course of employment. Equally clearly, a headteacher composing essential school guidelines is working in the course of employment and the copyright would belong to the school. But what about lesson plans and other resources? Many lawyers believe they belong to the employer. Henry Clinton-Davis, an employment specialist and partner at law firm Wilmer Hale, says: "The scope of a teacher's employment doesn't only encompass classroom teaching. They are also employed to plan lessons. If they create materials to assist their teaching, whether or not created in school time, those materials will belong to the employer."
Kate Pool, deputy general secretary of the Society of Authors, disagrees.
"A teacher's job is to teach," she says. "They aren't employed to write teaching material, and anything they do create belongs to them." Most teachers take the same view. Heather Cox, an advanced skills teacher at Cromer Road primary school in the London borough of Barnet, says: "I work in the evenings preparing individual lesson plans and resources. I'm happy for my colleagues to use and amend them but I'd be annoyed if the school tried to profit from them without my permission. They don't belong to anyone but me."
No modern legal cases have been tried on this point. The understanding in schools seems to be that copyright belongs to the teacher. Most materials on the internet are credited to the teacher and not the school; the Woodlands junior school site credits ownership of the materials to Mandy Barrow, an ex-teacher there. This universal understanding may change the legal position; a teacher could probably argue that it is implied by custom and practice that copyright belongs to the teacher, even if nothing is written in the employment contract.
So you can probably post any work you have done for school on the internet, although you should tell your head. Check that it doesn't include anyone else's work (see Chris Henshaw's story, below). If, for example, you took your original Stir-Up Sunday ideas from the Woodlands site, then credit them. Ensure that you have copyright clearance for use of any photos or illustrations; it seems easy to cut and paste images from Google Images but even if there are no copyright notices, reuse will normally be an infringement of copyright.
Also, be careful about sharing resources that feature your pupils' work; they have copyright too. Many schools have policies covering use of pupils'
work but these may not extend to use on outside websites, so ask for permission from pupil and parents. Be careful about using photographs of pupils. If you took the photos you will own the copyright but privacy law means that they cannot be used without parental consent. Make sure your work is accurate; if use of it could be risky, include an appropriate disclaimer; you don't want to be sued if your recipe for Christmas pudding causes an outbreak of food poisoning.
Think about what use other teachers might want to make of your work and post appropriate terms and conditions on your site. Some teachers are happy for others to adapt their work. "I would prefer other teachers to amend my resources," says Heather Cox, "as I always design them to support the learning of a particular class; for example I will incorporate names from my group and others should change them to suit their needs."
Primary Resources (www.primaryresources.co.uk) allows material to be adapted by the teacher who downloads it, as long as it is not then passed on. Other sites are uncomfortable about having their work amended as it might reflect badly on them. Teaching Ideas (www.teachingideas.co.uk) allows use in primary classrooms and by parents if the materials are not adapted. Some sites, such as www.teachingpets.co.uk, do not appear to have any restrictions on use. They invite teachers to send in their own lesson plans to be posted on the site. But a teacher who did this could run the risk that their teaching materials could be copied for commercial use, for example downloaded by an unscrupulous user onto CD and sold on eBay (again, see Chris Henshaw's account).
If you don't know the appropriate terms for drafting a copyright statement, consider using a Creative Commons licence (http:creativecommons.orgworldwideuk), with which you keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work on conditions which you can choose from checklists given on the website. Heather Cox could choose an Attribution, Non Commercial, Derivatives licence which would allow teachers to use her work and amend it for non-commercial purposes, if her contribution is credited.
If you find your work is being misused, then first phone or write a strongly worded letter: most users will apologise and withdraw it immediately. If that doesn't work, try contacting the copier's employer; teachers have no more right to be plagiarists than their pupils. As a final resort, you can sue for copyright infringement or breach of your moral rights to be attributed as author and not have your work subjected to derogatory treatment. Most problems arise because the teacher hasn't been clear about what uses are permitted.
So carry on sharing, but do take careful precautions.
Nicola Solomon 2006. Nicola Solomon is head of intellectual property and media at Finers Stephens Innocent Solicitors, London. email firstname.lastname@example.org