How do you see your schoolwork? Do you see it as yours or do you think it belongs to your school? Your final year project for instance, can you actually claim ownership rights over your school project? Now, you most probably have never considered it or you think it belongs to you as an individual. A few persons may believe that the project belongs to the school. I mean, yes you did all the work, but most likely because it was a requirement for your graduation. Your school required this project from you and eventually, you submit all of your work back to the school. It’s nothing too different from your school contracting with an engineer to build a road for them, right? You may say, ‘Well, they pay the engineer for his work’ , but aren’t you also paid? At least, at the end of the day, if you manage to do your work well enough, you are rewarded, with a degree and a certificate.
One more digression to make, I mean one more! Your mind might have run into several soul bumps in a bid to know what copyright means.Copyright basically refers to the rights you have over your intellectual work be it literary, scientific and artistic which prevent other people from reproducing and selling your work without your consent. It comprises two aspects which are economic rights and moral rights. Economic rights are the rights that an author of a work has to be paid, whenever his work is used. On the other hand, moral rights are the rights that the author has to be mentioned and accorded the status of authorship whenever and where ever his work is used. These rights, of course, apply in cases of public use and not in cases of private or personal use.
Now, consider this again, do you own copyright over your school work? In a fast changing world filled with unprecedented advancements in the field of human endeavour, there is a pressing need to protect the intellectual work of persons responsible in one way or another, for such advancement. The need for this, is even more urgent in an academic environment. While the position on lecturers is one that may be resolved by the terms of employment between the university management and the lecturers of the institution, the position of students with regard to their project works is quite a dicey one.In Nigeria, the relevant law governing copyright is the Copyrights Act Cap 28 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004. Section 9 of the Act specifies the right to first ownership of copyright and clearly states that the copyright in an artistic work vests initially in the author. Section 39(1)(f) goes on to define an author in the case of literary works, as the creator of the work in question.The Act however, is silent on the position of students and schools with regard to the fruits of intellectual endeavor during their studentship. Thus, given the position between lecturers and the university, one may be tempted to conclude that in case of project works by students, the university would most definitely own copyright to such by works as students occupy a lower position on the ladder.
However, the above argument can be turned on its head once again by stating that the university only owns the copyright to works of lecturers because they work for the university. Since students neither work for the university nor receive any form of remuneration for their studentship, one may very well conclude that the students would own the copyright to their works. The problem with this approach is that it leaves room for more counter arguments, thus trapping one in an endless loop. A better approach to this issue would be to assume the ownership of the copyright indeed belongs to the student while coming under the defense of fair use provided for by the Act for the university.The doctrine of fair use is a provision that makes it possible to use literary works without permission from the owner. This comes with a caveat however. The works must be used for commentary, criticism, parody, research, news reporting and scholarly works (which covers the subject matter of this piece). Following this, we see that regardless of who owns the copyright to students’ projects, there exists a window through which the university can escape as well. This is indeed welcome as the academic environment is one that thrives on the discovery and sharing of knowledge.
Before we conclude though, there is a small point to be considered. While the defense of fair use may grant the university permission to use the work of the student, this does not in any way erode the moral right of the original author (the student in this case). Moral rights are the rights which allow the author to preserve the personal link between himself and his work. This means that the student, regardless of who owns the copyright or the application of the fair use doctrine, would have the right to claim authorship of his work, a right to have his name mentioned when the work is reproduced and the right to object to any distortion or modification of the work which would be prejudicial to honor and reputation. This helps to prevent the unlikely situation where an unscrupulous lecturer may pass off the work of student as his or where the student depends on the original content of his work to gain the necessary reputation needed to advance in the professional world.
In conclusion, the ownership of copyright of the project works and other productions by students is an issue causing ripples throughout the intellectual world. A sure way to settle this would be to create a clear cut IP policy regarding the intellectual property of students and ensure that it gets circulated to all faculties. It is our belief that this would be a step in the right direction and a favourable solution for both parties.