David R. Henderson  

Prince George County Government as Slave Driver

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A proposal by the Prince George's County Board of Education to copyright work created by staff and students for school could mean that a picture drawn by a first-grader, a lesson plan developed by a teacher or an app created by a teen would belong to the school system, not the individual.
This is from Ovetta Wiggins, "Prince George's considers copyright policy that takes ownership of students' work," Washington Post, February 2, 2013.

What do you call someone who forces someone to produce something and then takes the proceeds for himself without compensating the producer?

I would call that person a slave driver. The government uses force to keep the students in school up to age 18. Now the Price George Board of Education proposes claiming ownership of what they produce. How is that different in principle from what plantation owners did two centuries ago in the southern United States?

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CATEGORIES: Regulation

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Probably Wrong writes:

It's different in principle because if someone wants to move to a different school district, or homeschool, they can't be put in chains and hauled back to this school district. Exit is an option here.

Infopractical writes:

Yes, there is a difference. Mobility is an option. A very expensive option in most cases, but one that exists. This isn't as bad as plantation slavery, but it's very wrong.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I though this may have to do with those automated plagiarism databases (that the school would have the right to upload student papers to them).

Fernando B. writes:

How is this different from unpaid internships?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Probably wrong and Inforpractical,
Point taken. Mobility is hugely important in this case. And, as Infopractical says, also potentially very expensive.
Mr. Econotarian,
Good point, but then they overreached. The government could claim the right to use in this limited way--not that I think that's right either--but not claim ownership.

MG writes:

I suspect you will get pushback from those who can easily see slavery as tyranny and slave holders as tormenting despots, but can not see public education and educrats in the same light.

But I suspect one not pushing back too strongly would be Alexis d'Tocqueville, who saw the parallels in the paradoxes.

"If despotism were to be established in present-day democracies, it would probably assume a different character; it would be more widespread and kinder; it would debase men without tormenting them…" Once in a while, we should all read his views on soft despotism.


Ken B writes:

I also see a first amendment problem with this. If the school owns the copyright they can enjoin publication.

Mr E is probably right, but this approach is both wrong and likely to be fail constitutional muster. Copyright is statute law, simply carve an exception to allow such searches, if that is what the goal is. Or use better ways to grade.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Like just about everything else that came out of any "governmental authority" of that county (at least during much of the 25+ years of residency in the area, and following the news there as it was re-populated from D C)it is balderdash (on a good day) and not fron Balder.

If subject to copywright, the subject matter is "intellectual property" [securing for limited times to authors ... the excusive Right to their respective writings ...]which can not be "taken" (absent contract which is not available with minors).

Those operating the processing system (there are some teachers) can fend for themselves, as they do through Unions.

What we have is another example that government payrolls can produce an economic "middle class," but not a middle class culture.

Roy Haddad writes:

Mobility is very important in this case, but I don't think it's an in principle difference. The school has no right to require a child to flee his home in order to escape servitude.

If Alice threatens to take Bob's car if he doesn't leave town, and he refuses, and she takes his car, she still commits theft; in principle, it is the same as any theft, regardless of how easy it would have been for Bob to leave, how long he had to leave, how nice neighboring towns are, etc. These are the same considerations as whether his car was a 20-year-old pile of junk or a brand-new Porsche.

Daniel Artz writes:

This may be a case of the School District trying to be a slave driver, but it's really a better example of a School District being woefully ignorant of the law. Copyright Law is a matter within the exclusive domain of the Federal Government, and no state, municipality, or school district has the authority to alter Federal Copyright Law. Under the Copyright Act, Title 17 U.S.C., it is the author of an original creative work which owns the copyright in that work. There is an exception for "works for hire", i.e., works authored by an employee acting within the scope of his or her employment and for which the employee is compensated. So, while it is possible that the School District could, under the proper circumstances, claim copyright ownership in a lesson plan prepared by a teacher employed by the School District (there would need to be an express assignment of such copyright, either in the Teacher's Contract, or after the fact), but the School District would have no legal basis to assert copyright in a student's work. Federal law grants ownership of that copyright to the author, and the School District has no authority to alter that rule.

Ken B writes:

I bet you could make a decent argument that such uploading counts as fair use of a school assignment anyway, but ther might be issues I am unaware of. Certainly it could be defined legislatively

Methinks writes:

How is this different from unpaid internships?

You mean besides the little fact that unpaid internships are a voluntary arrangement into which no person is forced?

Mobility is very important in this case

Running away from the plantation was also important to the slaves. In general, mobility has always been key for slaves and serfs.

txslr writes:

As Methinks points out, leaving was also an option for slaves. It was very expensive, however...

John writes:

Seems to me the BIG point here is how these local government officials seem to be completely unaware of the implication of their approach and how antithetical it is to the ideals of our form of society.

These are the guys we have seeking public office? Clueless about USA Civics? One begins to wonder why these should have any say in the education of our children.

Lars P writes:

Another difference is that the students can't be sold as property, nor killed at will with no legal consequence.

I agree that this is pretty bad, but the slavery parallel goes too far.

Methinks writes:

nor killed at will with no legal consequence.

No worries. The president will confess that the student was a terrorist and on his secret kill list. Or a drone got him accidentally.

Until you people are literally in shackles and on a trading block at an auction you'll go on saying "well, using one man for the purposes of another is not really slavery because we don't have this one tiny element, so it's alright. We have no right to self determination or property, but we're still FREE!"

By your definition we were free in the Soviet Union as well. After all, nobody bought and sold us in auctions. And...we could try to run away.

ThomasH writes:

The slaves did not get to vote for the position of owner. But it is a bad policy even if it's not quite as bad as human slavery.

blink writes:

I agree this is foolish policy and deserves to be called out. Perhaps that proposers should lose their positions. However, like many other commenters, I am uncomfortable with the quick analogy to slavery. These are not even in the same ballpark.

More interesting would be to analyse the policy more thoroughly. What are the incentives at play? For example, if enacted potentially entrepreneurial teachers would likely switch jobs. It would be like a tax on the districts best teachers and almost pure dead-weight loss at that. How about the other parties?

JKB writes:

Daniel Artz seems to have it right. The school district does not pay the children to do the work so they have no claim to what is created. They can hardly make a claim of trading forced education for the child's work since they'd then have rebutted the notion of "free education" especially since I doubt they have permission from the tax payers to sell "education."

As for slavery, this would be closer since it is governmental and performance is enforced by the state. A child is not free to relocate at will but is subject to the decisions of their parent or guardian. And what about children held by the state welfare system who if they run away will be hunted by the state authorities?

But the laws of the US make illegal forced labor/involuntary servitude. Slavery being societal/governmental entity. As as we all know from our childhoods, sometimes threats and force were used to get those assignments done. I know of no provision where force labor can be justified if it is "for their own good or enrichment."

It would be interesting to see the requirement challenged on child labor grounds. The assignments found to not further the student's schooling (many modern school lessons might fall afoul of this) or even depriving them of relatively more educational opportunities could be construed as child labor.

thomas boyle writes:

"Slavery" is a broad term. It does not imply, in general, that the slave has no rights, or can be (for example) killed or mistreated with impunity - although these seem to have been the case in the antebellum American south.
Slaves have had varying rights throughout history. Greek and Roman slaves could own property and were known to buy themselves, for example, and the institution was probably more similar to what we would now call indentured servitude.
Modern slavery is often more a matter of practice, than of legal definition. Legally the slave is not property, and has rights; practically, it may not matter.
In slavery, a person can be compelled to work for the benefit of a specific party. Whether there is compensation or not, is not relevant (although it may be important to the slave). Ownership is commonly held to be a requirement, but there is debate about this, especially since legal ownership is less common in modern slavery.
Modern institutions that have strong parallels to slavery, but whose status as "slavery" is debated include military drafts, indentured servitude, and family law. Being required to attend school and produce output for the benefit of the school district, certainly seems to skate pretty close to the line.

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