Focus: School Finance

Intellectual Property: Mining Gold in Your Backyard

by CAROL SIMPSON

School districts are intellectual property factories. Intellectual property, or IP, is a form of property right that authors, composers and inventors may claim to protect their investment in developing or creating new processes, ideas, literary or artistic works, and recognizable symbols of their trade.

School districts every day create dozens, if not thousands, of pieces of intellectual property. While each individual item may not be especially valuable, when combined into books, merchandise or curricular systems, this district-owned property can generate a tidy source of revenue for the district.

Carol SimpsonCarol Simpson


Some school districts are reaping the benefits of their IP. The Plano, Texas, Independent School District sells its online curriculum to other districts and offers online courses to students elsewhere in the state and well beyond. Plano’s technology director, Jim Hirsch, says the district earns slightly less than 1 percent of its annual half-billion dollar budget in this fashion.

The Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, raised $25,000 over the last three years by licensing the mascot of its high school’s nationally ranked football team and earned $350,000 in 2008-2009 for its total marketing program, from naming rights to web page banners. According to Julie Thannum, Carroll’s executive director of communications and marketing, managing these resources requires some diligence on the part of school personnel. The district believes the results warrant the efforts, she says.

Taking Inventory
How will you know whether you have significant intellectual property? Your administrative personnel have created (or know other employees who have created) potentially valuable work that could be used alone or in combination with other products. Don’t stop with your curriculum staff — think of anyone creative in the district.

For example, your marching band directors and drill team sponsors use special software to record choreography for their performances. Smaller schools or districts with less experienced directors would be willing to pay a reasonable amount for the files that your district already has used and likely will not use again.

You may have on-site technology staff members who write code to disaggregate standardized test data, monitor student and faculty computer access, control student records, or track student lunch purchases or health records. Specialized spreadsheets to record bus maintenance records, budgets or substitute teacher assignments also are valuable resources.

Check with department personnel to determine what they have developed to help them in their jobs. If your personnel need those programs, chances are other schools need them as well. If you can combine them into a system of documents or programs to accomplish a job category, you have created a turnkey marketable product. However, Hirsch warns that schools seldom have the resources to perform tech support on software they sell.

A school district probably uses several recognizable logos and slogans that might provide licensing income, and you can control where and how those symbols are used. By registering these symbols as trademarks you can reap licensing dollars for your district.

Employee Works
You may be surprised to know the school district may own the intellectual property of work created by employees. When district staff members create works within the scope of their employment, the work generally belongs to the employer. This is sometimes called the “work for hire doctrine.”

What is considered within the scope? Anything an employee does that contributes to the job for which she or he was hired might be considered within the scope. To state it simply, when a salaried teacher creates items used to teach a class, no matter where or when the faculty member creates them, the items most likely belong to the district.

If a teacher creates something entirely on personal time, with personal resources, that she or he does not use to teach the assigned class, that work probably belongs to the teacher alone. Nevertheless, some school districts add a clause in their employment contracts giving ownership of copyrights (but seldom patents) to their faculty members. Check your teacher contracts to see whether you have given away or share these rights. If already surrendered, discuss with your district’s attorney how you might regain future rights.

Making Money
How can you capitalize on these IP resources? Consider what you have that the market would want. Would teachers snap up a set of 5th-grade math assessments correlated to the state’s high-stakes test? What about lesson plans that creatively tackle all the objectives in the state-mandated curriculum?

Your district can parlay these print resources into sales dollars, especially if you have capable and charismatic teachers willing to present at conferences to show how well these resources engage students.

If a staff person will evaluate and correlate your material to a set of standards, you have the makings of a budding publishing program. You can sell your materials to a publisher (in which case they control the show and you get royalties) or you can self-publish. The latter may be a better choice simply because you control what happens to your property.

Just because you have a copyright or trademark doesn’t mean you must charge to use it. Thannum says the Carroll district allows booster clubs and PTOs free use of its mascot logo. But by controlling external use, you can prevent unfortunate applications of your graphics and charge users if that plan would best serve the district. Your district’s attorney can help you locate an IP specialist to register your works, develop license agreements and plan enforcement strategies.

Schools are finding their budgets stretched tighter and tighter, so you don’t want to let intellectual property opportunities slip through your fingers. By applying a little creativity to the collection and control of your resources, you can have a publication and licensing stream that will showcase your district, provide some return on your investment and manage your district property.

Carol Simpson is a lawyer specializing in school law with the Schwartz & Eichelbaum Wardell Mehl and Hansen firm in Plano, Texas. E-mail: csimpson@edlaw.com