Common Core Copyright: What Does It Really Mean? 5 Questions with Chris Minnich

Common Core Copyright: What Does It Really Mean? 5 Questions with Chris Minnich
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People protesting the Common Core education standards board a bus near the hotel where the meeting of Tennessee's Education Summit is taking place on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

Despite a noisy debate, more than 40 states are continuing to implement the Common Core State Standards.

Critics recently raised the copyright on the Common Core as evidence that the standards – developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor’s Association – are too rigid or are a profit-making endeavor.

Those critics, including some state elected officials, have also decried the memorandum of understanding states signed when they first adopted the standards saying it prohibits states from altering or removing content from the Common Core. CCSSO says this claim is baseless because the MOU was only valid through the development phase of the Common Core and null and void by 2010.

What’s going on? RealClearEducation spoke with CCSSO Executive Director Chris Minnich to discuss the Common Core’s copyright and how much power states really have in editing the standards. Minnich was previously the CCSSO’s strategic initiative director of standards, assessment and accountability, where he led the development and adoption of the Common Core in the states. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

What does it mean to "copyright" a set of standards and why was the Common Core copyrighted? Who holds the rights? 

We were copyrighting the standards to protect the states, who did all this work to develop them. The reason why we copyrighted it was because it’s a piece of independent work, so we wanted to make sure the states had protection from somebody taking the standards, changing them and selling them as “the Common Core,” or if a teacher was looking at a set of standards that said “Common Core” on them, we wanted to make sure there was consistency for teachers across the country.

The copyright is jointly held by NGA and CCSSO. However, we did it on behalf of our state members, so the states own the copyright of the standards. CCSSO operates on behalf of the state superintendents of the country, and NGA on behalf of the governors of the country. We’re ultimately run by our membership, so the two organizations hold the copyright in order to protect the states.

We also don’t make any money off the copyright, neither does the NGA. We don’t charge licensing fees. Individuals are free to use the standards as long they tell us they’re using them.

Are there already state standards that are copyrighted? What's the precedent here?

I don’t know if there are other states that have copyrighted their standards. I do know that most works that are independently produced by a group or by states are copyrighted, like the test consortia that are working together -- I’d assume that the items they developed are copyrighted to protect the states. The opponents of the copyright have said, “The copyright means the states can’t do what they want to with the standards.”  That’s just not the case. The states are the owners of this copyright, so they can do as they please with the standards and make changes as they wish.

Several states have added to the standards. For example, Indiana has just gone through a review process, in which they used portions of the Common Core as part of their final standards. I think states are going to be looking more and more to make sure that what’s in the standards is everything they want, and they have the right to do so because states own their own academic standards.

Should this notion of a copyright on standards even exist in the education space where learning is considered fluid? Doesn't this make it more of an economic practice than an academic one?

It’s tough because copyright is a complicated issue. But the biggest thing for us is to protect the states. If the standards weren’t copyrighted, a publisher could’ve taken the standards and sold them back to the states. We did this on behalf of the state agencies and governors to make sure they didn’t lose the protection of copyright on something that they created together.

The states worked together to write these standards. That’s why we’re still holding onto this, given it’s become an issue. We want to protect the states from either the standards being sold to them or somebody changing the standards and saying it is the Common Core. Those are the two things we’re most worried about.

What are examples of things that are permissible? Are there any limitations to what the states can or cannot do?

States have full control over their own standards. The benefit to the states, though, is that they wrote it together and there is a real benefit to commonality. That’s the piece I think states are still holding on to, is that having the same academic standards from state to state really is pretty important to them. That’s something that I think is being missed in this copyright discussion. There’s some real benefits of not changing standards: you can use materials that are not just created for your state only. You should see some economic benefit, you should also see the ability to use assessments and compare how your students are doing comparably outside your state. If I were sitting in a state agency right now I’d really be thinking about what I was doing before I make changes to the standards.

More generally, what do you hope will be the impact of the Common Core on the publishing industry? What else needs to happen to create a more vibrant and competitive marketplace?

One of the things we were hoping to do with the standards was open up the market to more publishers. Having a common set of standards across the country allows smaller publishers to come to the forefront.

Before the Common Core, each publisher had to produce 50 different sets of textbooks for 50 different standards – one for each state. The bigger publishers had the capital and resources to do that – to write to the different standards for different states, the smaller publishers really couldn’t. The smaller publisher would probably only be able to write to one, and hope that the other states would buy them. Now, given the more common standards, we would hope the smaller publisher would be able to get into that market and really increase the innovation that’s going on with materials.

In the end, the publishing industry will continue to serve school districts across the country, it’s not going anywhere. But we’re hoping it will open the market to smaller providers as well.

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