How a kid cartoonist avoided Scholastic's digital sharecropping trap
I'm an 8th grade middle school student at a public school in NYC. In my humanities class we are studying muckraking journalism, and we have an assignment to write a muckraking article about a modern issue. (For those who didn't pay attention during class, muckraking journalism is journalism that became prominent in the late 19th century. A muckraking article digs up and exposes problems in society.) Coincidentally, I recently had a personal experience with a muckrake-able issue. I chose to make lemonade out of lemons, and got a very interesting topic for my assignment--and one that I could write about both professionally and privately. So, I'm posting my homework here.
Recently I finished working on a project. It was a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called "Everyday Superheroes," where I would draw people in the form of superheroes, and, in return, they would donate money through me to the ACLU. In total, "Everyday Superheroes" amassed exactly $11,635.83 for the ACLU.
The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are presented by the publishing company Scholastic yearly. There are several categories in both the fields of art and writing. Students in grades 7-12 can apply for an award in one or multiple categories.
This year alone, students around America submitted over 330,000 works of art and writing to the Scholastic Awards, which goes to show the magnitude of this contest.
I was going to submit "Everyday Superheroes" for a Civic Expression Award--the Civic Expression award is an award for a piece of art or writing that "expresses a vision of the society they are working to build, one that exemplifies democratic values and that allows all voices and viewpoints to be heard and respected."
However, during the application process, I learned something disturbing about the Scholastic Awards. In their "Terms & Conditions," (the pages of legal language that nobody reads), they state that "The student irrevocably grants an assignment transferring to the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Inc.("Alliance") all right, title, and interest (including all copyrights) in and to the submitted work ("Work")."
That means that the copyright for whatever the applicant submitted is fully transferred to Scholastic. In other words, if a student who applied for an award tries to print or publish their own work without saying "Property of Scholastic Inc.," Scholastic can sue. In addition, Scholastic can publish the applicant's work and sell it without giving the applicant, the original creator, any of the profits.
But even if the applicant didn't want to print or publish their work, it still seems wrong to me that Scholastic would take students' copyrights in such a sneaky way.
I posted a tweet with a screenshot of the copyright term, hoping to get Scholastic's attention and have them change their Terms & Conditions, or at least give a reasonable explanation for why they would want to take complete ownership of student's copyrights--and why they would want to hide the fact that they do deep in their Terms & Conditions.
How come the @Scholastic @artandwriting award requires kids to sign over "irrevocable copyright" if they win?! And why is it hidden in the "Terms & Conditions" link that no one reads? Is it weird that I think that's wrong? https://t.co/a8MwlAkbMZ pic.twitter.com/d65OpJmjTP— Rumble Comics (@RumbleComics) December 12, 2017
The tweet got retweeted by Lawrence Lessig, an activist and attorney who argued in front of the Supreme Court:
There's no reason @scholastic couldn't get a non-exclusive license to use what the creator creates. That's not sharecropping; sharecropping is forcing the kid to give up (practically) all the rights to her creativity. That's as wrong now as it was in the 19th century.— Lessig (@lessig) December 13, 2017
Bill Amend, author and illustrator of the comic strip Foxtrot (published by Andrews McMeel Publishing), also retweeted it:
I must confess I didn't read the fine print when my daughter won one of these awards. Disappointing. You can do better, @artandwriting. https://t.co/5u4NyqOLQa— Bill Amend (@billamend) December 20, 2017
The conversation gained a lot of attention in the Twitter-verse. Finally, after days of others responding and sharing, this bit of muckraking caught the eye of Scholastic, who responded:
It looks like your question has generated lots of interest! We have FAQs about our process and terms & conditions, including why there's a 2-year copyright period, on our blog: https://t.co/2A2Sx6hFy2. Thanks!— Scholastic Awards (@artandwriting) December 15, 2017
That makes it seem like the information was up on their blog for all to see. In fact, the link they posted takes you to a FAQ page, but the page was posted December 15--the same day Scholastic responded and posted the link. That means that the entire FAQ page was posted just then, seemingly to respond to my tweet, but they made it seem like it had always been there--Scholastic was not telling the whole truth.
In the recently posted FAQ, it says, "The Alliance holds the copyright for the first two years. After those two years, the copyright goes back to you, and the Alliance continues to have a license to use the work non-exclusively". They're basically saying that 'Scholastic owns the copyrights for two years, and after the two years are up... we can still do whatever we want with your work'.
There are many solutions to this problem. One solution could be for Scholastic to change the term that claims complete ownership of the applicant's copyright to instead give them a non-exclusive license to the applicant's work, as Lawrence Lessig suggested (above). That would mean that the applicant, the original creator of the work, would own their own work, and be giving Scholastic permission to use it. At the very least, Scholastic should make it obvious that the term exists, rather than hiding it away, so that students can decide for themselves whether or not they want to sacrifice their copyrights to apply for an award.
I drew this cartoon to illustrate how Scholastic is being underhanded in taking applicants' copyrights when most applicants are unaware of the term. I hoped to get more attention from other people and from Scholastic (and I like to draw).
I shared it on Twitter to keep the pressure on for Scholastic:
I made a cartoon about the @Scholastic @ArtAndWriting Awards. Backstory: https://t.co/zuFEc47YBO @lessig @doctorow @billamend @klg19 pic.twitter.com/lh7he6TvdP— Rumble Comics (@RumbleComics) December 22, 2017
I hope that Scholastic will respond with a better explanation for why they claim ownership of students' copyrights and why the term is hidden, but for now I'm content to warn others before they make a choice they're not aware of. If you want to support this mission, please share this story on Twitter, Facebook, email, word of mouth, carrier pigeon, etc.
Sasha Matthews is a kid cartoonist now in 8th grade at a New York City public school.
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