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Jessica Chesher

Managing Editor

Innovation eReview
Featured Debate: Student IP Rights

Do students retain intellectual property rights to the work they do while at a university? Students work in research labs, enter contests involving their work, and take entrepreneurship courses, some of which require the development of a technology or software application.   Many assume students retain the intellectual property rights to their work. This is not always the case. 
It is fairly well settled that when a scientist or engineer is hired to work for a corporation, the work developed and inventions are “work for hire” and belong to the corporation. In academic institutions, faculty are subject to the institutional intellectual property policy which generally claims ownership of inventions made by faculty, employees, students and others utilizing the institution’s facilities. In most instances the intellectual property policy provides that the inventor is entitled to a specified share of the royalties, and the right to patent the invention if the university declines to pursue patent protection within a specified period of time. (For example, the State University of New York policy provides for 40 percent of gross royalty paid – with some exceptions. See TITLE J – PATENTS, INVENTIONS AND COPYRIGHT POLICY, State University of New York Board of Trustees Policies).

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education "My Adviser Stole My Research" highlights issues that can arise about ownership of intellectual property when faculty and graduate students are working closely on similar research.

Reasonable people disagree as to these issues. Facts regarding whether the student receives compensation from the university for teaching duties or lab responsibilities vary. Other factors of relevance are use of university facilities for the invention, the involvement of a faculty advisor in the development of all or part of the invention, and outside government or industry sponsorship of the lab or program where the student invention was made.

In environments that increasingly emphasize entrepreneurship, the factors involved when a student wishes to commercialize an invention made in a university lab in partnership with an outside entity become quite complicated. Do the benefits the institution provides for the inventions such as assuming the costs associated with patenting and marketing it, justify their retaining ownership? Would it be preferable for the university to keep a royalty free license to student inventions?

The key advice with regard to students is for all involved to be knowledgeable about their institutional policies up front before there is an invention to be developed, licensed or sold. Universities should carefully consider their approach and insure that it is clearly communicated.
For more information: Online Ethics Center of the National Academy of Engineering: Intellectual Property Rights and Responsibilities-A Student's Guide, and Fixing a Hole: Eliminating Owernership Uncertainties to Facilitate University- Generated Innovation, by Anthony J. Luppino, Winter, 2009, UMKC Law Review, 78 UMKC L. Rev. 367

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