Do you own the work you create in your college program?

Going to college (for art students and everyone else) is an opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of ideas, academic and practical pursuits, but by enrolling in a college both the student and the institution enter into a legally binding agreement. Actually, it is more than one agreement. Students sign contracts to pay tuition and all required fees, to behave in a certain way while attending classes or living in a dormitory (“I shall conduct myself in a manner which demonstrates respect for the University, myself, and my classmates” is one of six statements in the agreement that students at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pennsylvania are required to sign) and to abide by some spelled-out code of conduct while using school-owned computers and software. Additionally, there may be other legal documents to sign for those involved in athletics, internships and foreign travel.

For art students, there also may be other contracts to sign, such as agreeing to pay the cost of art materials provided to them (comparable to “lab fees” in the sciences), adhering to rules involving the safe use of art materials and tools (the Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers University requires the signing of a “shop access contract” for the wood shop, which states that students read and abide by all health and safety regulations) and when they seek to use an exhibition space to display their work. Students assigned private studios at the Ringling College of Art and Design agree in writing that they won’t sleep in these spaces or bring in a refrigerator, among 23 specific rules. In the thick student and faculty handbook at the Maryland Institute College of Art, there are pages devoted to limiting certain types of art speech – graffiti art on public property is “vandalism,” animals must be treated “in a humane manner when used in/as art work,” no setting off fireworks, displaying or using weapons, possession or use of illegal drugs or alcohol, no exposing others to “blood, urine, feces, chemicals or other hazardous materials” – as well as producing “works that involve physical/emotional stress (potential or real) to the artist and/or audience.”

Every independent art college and university art department has agreements for students to sign that limit certain behaviors or require them to take responsibility for something or other. For example, the exhibition contract at the Lamar Dodd School of Art of the University of Georgia describes the type of permissible use and required clean-up for those requesting a gallery:

Click here for sample contract.

Art students may have one more document to sign, ceding ownership of their work or effectively waiving a portion of their copyright claims for artwork they create while enrolled in the institution. As part of the registration process, students sign a limited release allowing the school to display their works in exhibitions, to use images of their work for promotional purposes (in printed publications and for the college’s Web site), and to retain the work temporarily for those purposes.

For example, the Department of Art in the University of Montevallo’s College of Fine Arts in Alabama “reserves the right to retain examples of student work for instructional purposes. The Department of Art reserves the right to reproduce examples of student artwork in its web page and any other promotional materials the department produces or approves.” Similarly, Pratt Institute’s Department of Digital Arts “retains the right to re-produce and distribute documented projects for promotional purposes only.” All of this is without compensation.

Art students aren’t alone in this type of thing. The film school of the University of Southern California claims ownership of the copyright of any student film made using school equipment, while New York University’s film school claims the right to purchase copies of and display films produced by its students. These students learn in their programs what copyright is and protects, and then get a lesson in how copyright may be lost.

Speaking of copyright, back in 2006, Paul Chan was a visiting artist for the MFA program at Northwestern University and looked at one student’s work that was a banner with the words “mission accomplished” on it, referencing the well-known 2003 photograph of President Bush on an aircraft carrier that had a banner with those words on it. Several months later, Chan was asked to contribute a work for a benefit auction at a Hong Kong arts center, and he recreated the student’s banner but with his name on it. He displayed the same piece at a group exhibition in London a few months after that, but did email the student to say that he would share credit and any sales revenues from the piece with her, which came as a surprise to her as she had been unaware of his actions. Chan settled a legal claim not long thereafter.

Just so you know.

Daniel Grant

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