Collaborating for fun…and profit?

I witnessed a heated exchanged on Twitter this morning that I want to address in more than 140 characters. Here’s the gist:

Twitterer1 (T1) posted a game to Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT). From what I could tell, the game was based on a game from someone else’s blog. Twitterer2 (T2) called her out on it, saying that she was making money off of the ideas of other bloggers and plagiarizing their work. She went on to say that the members of the mathtwitterblogosphere do not like TPT and do not support its use for this reason. T1 claimed she did give credit to the person who she was inspired by, but T2 said that’s not good enough. T1 also pointed out that there are other mathtwitterblogosphere members with TPT stores, so obviously some people are okay with it. Eventually T1 removed the offending game from her TPT store.

At first blush, this is a pretty straightforward issue – T1 took someone else’s work, made slight modifications, and attempted to sell it for profit. However, upon reflection, I find an interesting double standard here. In my eight years working in the classroom, I saw countless examples of copyright infringement perpetrated by fellow teachers.

  • Copying entire commercial workbooks that someone else bought so the teacher has a copy in their files
  • Making posters for their classroom using licensed characters such as Winnie The Pooh, Mickey Mouse, and Dora the Explorer
  • Playing full movies and songs for which the teacher does not have express permission

And I get why teachers do these things. For one, teachers are not made of money. They aren’t copying workbooks because they don’t like spending their own money. They’re doing it because they can’t afford to buy an entire library of instructional materials. As it is, teachers often purchase many supplies and materials for their classroom using their own money, but there is a limit to how much they can spend. Schools sometimes have budgets to help teachers purchase supplies and resources, but not always. Second, teachers want to make their classrooms fun and engaging for their students. Using licensed characters is appealing to many students so teachers include them. I don’t personally care for it because students are bombarded with enough advertising to buy products associated with these characters, but that’s a whole different matter.

So basically, I’ve seen many teachers willingly cheat the system and steal from outside businesses. In their minds, I’m sure it feels out of necessity to provide the best learning for their students. However, it intrigues me that when a teacher takes an idea from another teacher and makes some money off of it, other teachers get up in arms about plagiarism. That’s not to say that T1 was right to do what she did, but it still strikes me as a double standard.

The other part that gets me about this is that teachers should know that ideas are recycled over and over and over. Games especially are rehashed throughout the years. I’ve seen 4th graders playing variations of games I played when I was a kid. When I told them I played that game when I was younger, I’ve had them reply I couldn’t have because so-and-so’s sister just made up the game. Look at foldables as another example of content that is invented over and over. Dinah Zike might be the queen of foldables, but do you think every idea is originally hers? Do you see her going after every teacher who shares foldables ideas for free or profit?

There is a definite gray area as teachers are planning lessons because for the many ideas they have, it is not feasible for them to check if there is a copyright on every single one. Also, is it the idea that is copyrighted, or just the materials that come with it? For example, I love the game Close to 100 that I learned from using TERC’s Math Investigations curriculum. I don’t have the materials anymore, but if I was to make a version for my class now, would I be breaking copyright law? Do I even know if TERC invented and copyrighted the game? Do I have time as a teacher to navigate all the legal waters just to play a game with my class? I definitely don’t have the time to do this for everything I do on a daily basis.

Okay, on to the other side of this issue. I don’t just have a problem with what T1 did. I also take issue with T2’s response. The way T2 characterized it, the mathtwitterblogosphere is some kind of entity that has specific members and specific rules. I don’t agree. From what I have gathered since starting blogging a few weeks ago, the mathtwitterblogosphere is an initiative, not an organization. A few people who have seen the value in blogging and twittering with fellow educators were inspired to encourage others to join them. And join them they did! There was a huge group of educators who started blogging in August, myself included. We did not join an organization, however. There was no application process so I could connect with these folks. There are no membership fees. There is no charter. The “members” of the mathtwitterblogosphere are a loose collection of educators who share a similar interest in talking about math education and sharing ideas with each other.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand why T2 was upset. There is something sketchy about freely sharing ideas with people only to find out some of the people you’re sharing with are taking your ideas and selling them for profit. There are some issues with integrity and professional ethics there. However, I don’t appreciate T2 speaking for the entire mathtwitterblogosphere since it is not a defined entity. I would have preferred T2 to keep it personal – I don’t like TPT. I don’t like sharing ideas so others can make a profit. Others are then welcome to add their voices if they agree. As T1 pointed out, there are other members who have TPT stores. Heck, I’m sure that is true throughout the twitter and blogging realms. I’ve seen numerous postings on #edchat advertising sales in TPT stores. I have no doubts that some of these people are reading blogs, getting ideas, and creating materials to put in their stores. Are they getting permission to use other people’s ideas? Probably not.

Honestly, I feel sad mostly for the teachers who are turning to TPT for their educational resources. From what I’ve seen in my short time blogging and twittering there are so many people willing to share ideas, lessons plans, and instructional materials for FREE. Perhaps finding and keeping up with blogs is too much work. There is something to be said for the convenience of going to one site, searching for a specific topic, and getting the materials you need right then and there. It might cost you a few bucks, but pretty much everything comes down to time vs. money. Some have more time, and some have more money.

In the end, I’m glad T1 took the materials out of her store. It did seem like the right thing to do. So what am I taking away from all this? The mathtwitterblogosphere is a collection of educators who want to stay connected and support each other. Unfortunately, our shared interest in education does not necessarily mean that everyone shares the exact same values. I’m okay with that. The rewards definitely outweigh the trade offs.

UPDATE: So shortly after posting this message I came across a news story about a teacher who has earned over $1 million selling lesson plans on Teachers Pay Teachers. It raised an interesting ethical question for me. Is there a legal conflict in this situation? Who owns teacher lesson plans? If I was a teacher, and I made lesson plans for my students, I am doing that as a paid employee of a school district. If I then take those lesson plans and sell them elsewhere, do I have the right to do that? Do my lesson plans belong to me or my school district? Do I have the right to double dip?

The reason I ask is because working as an instructional designer for a curriculum company, I know my company would take serious issue with me taking lesson plans from my job and selling them on another site for my own profit Heck, they would probably even take issue if I made lesson plans on my free time and just sold those lesson plans. And I would understand their concern. If I made lesson plans on my free time that are worth selling, does that mean I am not giving my company my best effort during the work day? Am I holding out, so to speak, saving my best ideas for the work I do in my free time? It’s an interesting issue, and I wonder if there is an answer with regards to public school teachers. I’ll have to check around.

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