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Handle yearbook copyright issues
before you find the book for sale online


by John Bowen
Because advisers raised this issue on JEA’s listserv before Christmas break, we thought now would be the perfect time to address the issue.

Students and advisers unhappy with various groups who buy and sell school yearbooks online, with no funds going to the student media, have several steps to consider if they want to fight the practice.

First, some points to consider:
• Yearbooks published before March 1, 1989 are no longer copyright protected. Resellers have clear access to them.
• If there is no copyright notice in a yearbook or if there is and the owner of it is not the school, the school is not the owner of that book if nothing else suggests the school owns the rights to the book. The printing company also has no ownership rights. Having the school be the copyright owner would also suggest the school can control content and decisions, and that is not smart in the long-run for student freedom of expression.
• For current student editors to engage in a copyright lawsuit, they would have to actively pursue a legal copyright infringement claim or appoint an agent to do so.
• Past student yearbook editors would have to assign copyright rights to current editor(s) to allow them to pursue a lawsuit on their behalf. This could create a larger claim.
• Advisers have no legal right to claim copyright infringement, just as a school has no rights.
• No class action can likely occur because copyright infringement suits are too fact specific.
• Students would have had to – or would still have to – complete the formal registration process and be able to clearly demonstrate the yearbook’s value at the time of publication through some sort of price guide.

In short, it is a difficult and time-consuming process to carry out a copyright infringement fight. Students – clearly tied to the production and content creation of the yearbook – would have to find a copyright lawyer willing to engage in the fight and fulfill the numerous steps above.

Only the dedicated need apply – and maybe then only to make a point about the ethics of taking others’ work without providing proper remuneration to sustain student efforts.

If students are really upset about the practice of reselling yearbooks, can meet the criteria above and are willing to take on a long fight, then this is a battle worth waging – school by school, student by student.

Students are clearly the only ones who can wage a legal battle. If they are not willing to fight a long fight, it is not a legal battle JEA or any other group can engage in.

Steps to take now to avoid future conflicts:
• Copyright students’ work/publication so it cannot be used in a way they/you do not want. That means carrying out the formal copyright process.
• Clearly state in the book student ownership and copyright assignment. If you use media contracts with students, this might be a good place for students to agree to copyright ownership and what it means.
• To help determine what it means, check out, an SPLC project.
• Check out the Student Press Law Center’s Registering Your Yearbook’s Content, Model Yearbook Copyright Warning and Sample Yearbook Staff Member License  for more information on copyright and protecting student editor interest.

The Press Rights Commission also has yearbook information here.

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