In today’s digital world, kids are constantly making things that are protected by copyright. Actually, this was always the case, but before the Internet, no one really asked questions about who owns the rights in that “What I Did This Summer” essay. But now that kids are making digital art, coding games and apps, and otherwise fully participating in our digital culture, teachers, librarians, and parents wonder how copyright works when it comes to kids.
The general answer is that copyright works for kids the same way as it does for adults. Copyright protection vests in a child’s work automatically upon creation, and that protection covers the same rights and lasts for the same length of time as it does for adults.
The question that seems to come up more often than any other though is: who owns the copyright when a kid makes something, let’s say a game or an app, as part of an assignment for school or in a library program? Under almost all circumstances, the answer to that question is the kid, not the school or library. That’s because the Copyright Act grants ownership to the author of the work, (in this case, the kid) unless the work is a “work made for hire.” Copyright law defines this as a work “prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment” or one that is created by an independent contractor that falls within nine specific statutory categories with a written agreement between the parties designating that the work is made for hire. Usually, school children will not be considered employees or independent contractors by a court.
So, when schools, libraries, and other institutions who work with kids who code begin to think through their policies and practices around copyright, they need to understand that the institution (usually) is not the owner of the material these kids are creating. One great option for institutions is to encourage the use of Creative Commons licenses on kid-produced material. This allows the institution the full ability to showcase the material, for example on a school or library website, but allows the kid to retain ownership of the copyrights in his or her work.
Note that state law may regulate contractual relationships and/or business dealings involving copyrights owned by minors. I recommend consulting an attorney licensed in your state if you have specific legal questions about how these state laws might impact you, your institution, or your child.