Artist RightsLaw

Miami Dade College’s Animation Program Raises Ethical Questions About Ownership Of Student Ideas

As more film schools forge partnerships with the entertainment industry, they are also starting to take on certain studio characteristics, such as retaining rights to their students’ works and setting themselves up to earn huge paydays from the work of their students. Their tactics raise ethical questions about how much a student owes a school for their education.

Antonio Cardenas’s experience at Miami Dade College (MDC) in Florida offers a troubling example of the new ways that schools are securing a financial stake in the future success of their students. Cardenas, a graduate of the Miami Animation and Gaming International Complex (MAGIC) program at Miami Dade College in Florida, decided last spring to pitch a story idea to the school’s MDC MAGIC Pitch Session/Program.

MDC runs the Pitch Session and Program in partnership with corporate television companies such as Viacom, Univision, Discovery Latin America, as well as hardware and software providers like Alienware and Pixar’s Renderman, and cultural institutions such as Rio de Janeiro’s Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow).

Miami Dade College services a predominantly working class, minority population: their most recent survey available reported 70% of its students Hispanic and 17% African-American. Annual tuition at MDC’s animation program is $7,093, and students finish with an Associate degree in Science. (The school estimates that students enrolled in other Bachelor of Science programs will pay $1,558 per semester, or about $3,116 per year, in tuition, fees, and books.) The school’s most famous alumnus could be the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, author of the play on which the Oscar-winning film Moonlight was based.

In the spring of this year, on the Friday before the students began their story pitches idea to the MDC overseers, the school handed each of them a contract, and told they had to sign it before they could pitch on Monday. All of the students signed their contracts. Cardenas pitched his story idea to the MAGIC Program and was accepted into the Nickelodeon Latin America program, which would allow him to produce a short film under the guidance of a mentoring executive, who met periodically with the students and advised them on their projects. Some of the short films could also be selected for broadcast on Latin American television.

The contract contained a clause that is possibly unprecedented for an educational institution, requiring that students give Miami Dade College Foundation 15% of any gross income the student earns from any idea developed with these studio partners as part of the MAGIC program, in perpetuity. The contract explained to students that “by participating in the Pitch, [the student is] receiving additional and extracurricular resources, outside of the ordinary classroom experience,” and that these resources “have a substantial value and an MDC contribution to potentially improving their marketability.”

The contract additionally points out that even though a student’s idea or material “may be developed in the future in a manner which may change… [the student’s] Idea or Material” that “[the student] still agree[s] to remit to MDC the percentage of the proceeds paid to” the student.

Throughout animation history, many Hollywood animation projects have started as shorts made in school, everything from Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls to the Focus Features cg film 9.

Had Seth MacFarlane made his student film The Life of Larry at MDC, the school’s contract is broad enough that they could claim that Family Guy, which was inspired by elements of MacFarlane’s earlier student work, was evolved out of the school’s program and that they are entitled to a 15% stake in its gross.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out the endgame: if just one successful student like MacFarlane comes out of the MDC program, the school stands to receive tens, and possibly hundreds, of millions of dollars from their part-ownership of students’ work.

Miami Dade College is not the only school that reserves certain rights in their students’ works. USC’s School of Cinematic Arts also retains a copyright interest in certain student films.

But there is a big difference between USC and MDC: although USC may own the copyright to a student film under certain circumstances, the student still retains the copyright to the underlying script, treatment, idea, or other written work product that provides the basis for the student work. That means if a student later develops a feature film or tv series from the short, the student has that right without needing to first obtain USC’s permission or to give the school a single penny of the earnings from that project.

Cartoon Brew contacted several other schools with major animation programs such as Calarts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Canada’s Sheridan College, none of whom claimed any interest in any of their students’ ideas or other “underlying rights” to their students’ works. These schools only retain a right to show the work at showcase screenings or for marketing purposes.

Mauricio Ferrazza, chairperson of MAGIC, emphasized to Cartoon Brew that the pitch program is entirely voluntary and thus any contract – Ferrazza downplayed it as a “waiver” – a student signs is signed on a voluntary basis as well. No student is required to take part in the pitch program, nor to sign any contract, to graduate. Ferrazza also noted that the MAGIC program has been “recently highlighted as a model program” by the Florida Department of Education.

Cardenas’s project, Morpho, was supervised by MDC animation professor Roman Fournie and overseen by Viacom executive Miriam Luciow. Cardenas met periodically with Luciow, and his project seemed to be going very well. “Nickelodeon approved everything my team produced, and we completed the project on time,” Cardenas told Cartoon Brew.

Cardenas, however, continued to be bothered by the contract. He questioned the school administrators about it – which prompted other students to “start asking questions as well,” he said. He also objected to Ferrazza’s heavy-handed methods of overseeing the program, insisting on certain creative decisions, and then using threats and intimidation to get his way.

Cardenas was not alone in his complaints. Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, complained that Ferrazza “threatened to blacklist me from the industry” because of his complaints about the program. “He said he would have made my short without me.” A third student, who also requested anonymity, stated that Ferrazza “does not understand the animation process, only the business side of things.”

Cardenas, having developed what he thought was a good professional relationship with Luciow, wrote his mentor a letter, advising her of his concerns with the contract and with the school, among other concerns with the program.

A month later, Cardenas was removed from the pitch program. “The school dropped my cartoon because I challenged the contract,” he said.

Ferrazza did not respond to questions concerning the reasons for dropping Cardenas’s short. Viacom did not respond to questions concerning their involvement with MDC’s Pitch Program.

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