The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

The Student News Site of Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley Lanthorn

Media Monopoly: GV Athletics Media Interns Raise Concerns Over Intellectual Property

GVL/ Bethann Long

In this age of technology, an image really does speak a thousand words. At Grand Valley State University, the Athletic Department media interns have helped paint the image of monumental athletic moments, but have plenty to say on what goes on behind the camera. 

GVSU Athletics media interns have stepped forward with concerns surrounding an “unstructured work environment” and potential exploitation of their creative work without any written contracts. These concerns beg the question- who inevitably owns the intellectual property being created from the sidelines of these sporting events?

Media interns have been approached by their supervisors throughout the past few months, who have told them that they need to stop posting photos and videos they have taken on their personal social media platforms. Often these platforms are used as modern-day portfolios. This content was taken with photographers’ own equipment at GVSU sporting events they were assigned to cover. Allegedly, interns who posted GVSU sporting event photos on social media platforms received verbal threats from Grand Valley Athletics Deputy Director of Athletics- External Communications, Doug Lipinski who said they would be sent cease and desist letters.

According to a text thread between the interns and their supervisors Malik Ellis, the Director of Creative Services, and Zach Pierson, the New Media Director, these posts were considered “unauthorized content” and told them to stop posting for the time being until an alternate form of usage of their photos and videos becomes available.

A text in this text thread from an intern said it “would make much more sense to have a meeting with the interns and have actual guidelines so we know what we can and can’t do. Rather than sending threats indirectly to scare us from doing things he does not like.”

In an email procured through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which was sent from Lipinski to Ellis and Pierson, Lipinski stressed the importance that Ellis ensures his staff is “following all university guidelines and policies along with copyright law.” 

Under GVSU’s General Personnel Policies for Faculty and Staff, section breaks down the rights surrounding published materials. According to these policies, the University strives to reinforce the “fairness of mutual commitment” and recognizes that these intellectual properties “are rightly the property of the Creator” except for a few exceptions such as ownership and right to use that is laid out in this section.

This is where the waters begin to get murky on where Grand Valley Athletics and their media interns stand. Under the ownership clause of the 4.10.2 section, it states that “all Intellectual Property shall be owned by its Creators when such Intellectual Property is not considered work made for hire, or expressly assigned or commissioned by the University.” According to all interns, along with no contract being laid out to them at the beginning of their internship, there was no guidance put into place on whether this unpaid work they were doing for the department was under the terms and agreement of work made for hire or commissioned by the university.

This has been met with confusion as none of these interns were ever placed under a written contract with clear expectations on what can and can’t be done with the content they create. With no definite policies from the beginning, interns were unaware that the use of their content in a professional manner was not allowed.

Further into the email, during a conversation between Lipinski, Ellis and Zach Pierson, which occurred on November 30, 2023, the three seemingly agreed and came to an understanding as to what the interns were allowed and not allowed to do with this “university intellectual property.”

“As a freelance photographer, I own everything. Period. Per NCAA I can’t sell to players or give to them. But the NCAA does not regulate me posting on socials,” said the freelance photographer. 

Beyond the unclear policies, the environment and dynamic of this internship have brought attention to the lack of guidance coming from supervisors and the expectation that interns will take on a bulk of the responsibilities. 

Lipinski further stated in his email with Ellis and Pierson his expectations of the two directors, which included for them to “create, plan and execute a creative services weekly meeting. Where assistance in organizing event coverage, proper insight, and improved leadership could occur. However, according to all interns who have been willing to talk, there have never been weekly meetings with Ellis and Pierson put in place, and any scheduled meetings that were meant to occur have been continuously rescheduled.

Sean Figurski, one of the first interns to be hired in June of 2022, wanted to utilize his skills in videography for GVSU Athletics and reached out to them through multiple emails asking about potential positions that would be open for the upcoming school year. Within a month of his unpaid internship under Ellis and Pierson, Figurski was asked to travel down to Indianapolis to cover a swim meet for GVSU, which was later followed by a job offer from Pierson for assistant director of video, a paid position, towards the end of his first year with the department. However, after months of following up with his supervisors in regard to the position, he was met with silence.

“I kept asking them for any updates on the job and if I was actually going to get it, and was pretty much ignored by Malik,” Figurski said. “So I just kept working for them (as an intern),”

Figurski learned at the Grand Valley football media day at the start of the 2023 season that he would not receive the job, but still have the opportunity to work for the department as an unpaid intern.

“An internship is supposed to be about learning and growing as a person to be in that field, but we haven’t learned a single thing,” Figurski said.

Emma Graham, a photo intern who started at the beginning of the 2023 football season, highlighted her experience with the disorganization of the internship, and frustration with the inability to own her own photos.

The scheduling of interns was done verbally by asking Ellis’ permission to go cover events they had an interest in. To alleviate too many people wanting to cover the same sporting event, a Google Document was created for interns to fill in when they’re available for events and sign up to cover what they want. However, this never guaranteed an intern was a shoo-in to be assigned.

“I would sign up for things and then I wouldn’t hear back from anyone. So, I’m like am I supposed to show up? Am I supposed to not show?” Graham said.

Graham said she believes photographers in this position, who are devoting their time and equipment without being paid, at least deserve the right to show off their work.

“The least that they can do is let me show off my work. That’s the way I’m going to get noticed as a photographer and an artist.”

Communication between upper management and the media interns has been minimal to say the least.

When reached out to for a statement on these conflicts and allegations, Keri Becker, the Director of Athletics at Grand Valley issued this statement:

“At no time has any intern within the athletic department brought any worries or conflicts to our attention. Further, we would not discuss personnel matters with you as an individual nor in a public forum. It is unprofessional and inappropriate.

The appropriate resolution to potential workplace conflict is for the interns to speak directly to their supervisor, then proceed to the next leader within the organization– such as Doug Lipinski or myself. If this is not possible, the Student Ombuds, Takeelia Garrett, who I have cc’d on this email would be an appropriate avenue as well.  Taking whatever worry or conflict you have referenced to a newspaper article is an irresponsible way to resolve such issues. 

 I welcome the individuals to contact me with anything they would like to discuss, if they wish to find some resolution. My door is open, my contact information is below and easily found on our website staff directory.”

The environment of GVSU Athletics has left the media interns feeling as though they can’t express their initial thoughts and feelings to supervisors in order to resolve these issues among the department.

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About the Contributor
Bethann Long
Bethann Long, Image Editor
Bethann Long is the Lanthorn's Image Editor for the 2023-2024 school year. She previously worked as a staff photographer at the Lanthorn. Bethann is a journalism, broadcast, and digital media major with a minor in advertising and public relations. In her free time she loves to spend time outside, go to any sporting events, and traveling. She is super passionate about football, hockey and baseball and plans to pursue a career in sports photography or sideline reporter after graduating from GVSU.   Graduating Winter 2024 Major: Journalism, Broadcast, and Digital Media