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The Ins and Outs of IP Ownership

University policies specify whether the students, faculty or institutions own intellectual property developed on campus

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Across the country, universities are awarded billions of dollars each year for research, education and service projects through grants from the federal government and private foundations.

Once the research is completed, the book is written or the discovery is made, how much of that intellectual property actually belongs to the person who performs the project?

Julie Masterson, dean of the graduate college at Missouri State University, serves as chair of the university’s intellectual property committee, and she said it really depends on several factors.

“If a student writes her thesis while under the supervision of a faculty member, the student does have a right to that copyright,” Masterson said. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, the student should always hold exclusive rights,’ because there are so many extenuating circumstances.”

Masterson said the party that financially benefits can depend on where the project idea came from, whether it’s part of an individual’s job description, how many resources are utilized or whether grant funds were utilized.

In fiscal 2021, MSU was awarded a record $122 million in external funding for research, education and service projects, according to a report from the school’s office of research administration. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, a federal relief fund, provided over $86 million and the remaining nearly $36 million came from research and project funding from additional government coffers, as well as nonprofit organizations, businesses and other sources.

Student property
In December, graduate students attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston signed cards in favor of forming a union, in part to answer the IP ownership question, according to a report in the Boston Globe. The union, represented by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, was established with the purpose of “negotiating the terms and conditions of (graduate student) roles.” One of the roles students want negotiated is how graduate students benefit from IP.

At MSU, however, Masterson said the policy on intellectual property is faculty and student supportive, and students or faculty usually know what to expect ahead of time.

“This policy is very well written and very clear,” she said. “We encourage faculty to pass a (memorandum of understanding), a written agreement, with the student, prior to any work being done.”

Graduate students at the state school in Springfield, as well as around the country, do receive stipends during the time they are working and completing research.

The Boston Globe article stated that according to students, 50%-80% of graduate student stipends at MIT are being used to pay for student rent.

Masterson said she believes IP policy doesn’t affect the way MSU financially supports its graduate students. In fall 2021, MSU had 632 graduate students, with 78% who were employed by academic units or research labs.

“The president, the provost and the chief financial officer continue to be very supportive of our graduate assistants,” she said. “When the faculty members get a cost of living adjustment to their salaries, we always make sure that the graduate assistant stipend is increased by the same amount.”

Faculty property
Masterson said how IP gain is quantified at MSU is factored case by case, but faculty members know some research is expected of them.

“In order to get tenure and promotion or tenure at any university, faculty members are expected to be scholarly active,” she said.

Masterson said MSU also has summer faculty fellowships that grant faculty members stipends to allow them to focus on research during the summer months. Typically, she said MSU rewards about 14 fellowships for just over $85,000.

If only university computers are used to do research or write a book, the school typically does not require funds to be paid back to the institution, Masterson said. She noted she’s personally been involved in such projects, having written books and software packages.

“I reported it, but the university has never asked for a portion of those royalties,” she said.

Course materials a professor writes and requires students to use in class are ethically different, she said.

“I am forcing a student at the university to buy a book that I am going to make money on,” she said. “So, the ethical thing to do in that case is to contribute in some way to the university. As long as I am not personally benefiting from it and can document that I gave it back to the university or a foundation that is supporting something relevant, then that is fine.”

However, research that includes patents can get even more complicated, Masterson said.

Specialized facilities
MSU owns and operates both the Jordan Valley Innovation Center and the Efactory. The Efactory is a business incubator that assists startup businesses, mostly technology based, and JVIC is a research-based center where outside companies come in to use university space or resources.

IP is different treated differently at JVIC and the Efactory, said Allen Kunkel, associate vice president for economic development and director of JVIC.

“The university doesn’t take ownership of anything the student discovers, unless they are a student worker or are somehow connected to us financially,” he said. “It gets tricky if they are using university resources, such as a lab or something. JVIC has a separate intellectual policy, because the companies that are partnering with us are leading the discoveries.”

Kunkel said JVIC is able to assist faculty and companies, but that the employees working at the facility are mostly employees of each private company utilizing the facility or its resources. The research and discoveries that happen at JVIC, in most cases, belong to the companies carrying out the projects. He said 60 outside companies are supported between JVIC and the Efactory.

The future of IP
The way intellectual property is credited continually changes as the use of technology changes, Masterson said.

Masterson said MSU’s IP committee made up of university officials, including Masterson as chair and a university attorney, is the governing body presiding over complicated cases when they arise. She said the committee only meets when such decisions are needed, and it’s only met twice in the seven years she’s served on it.

One of the instances was regarding online organizations that were recruiting and paying students to take notes in class, which would then be used for resale.

“The discussion was, ‘Is the student stealing the faculty member’s information?’ The course content, in most cases, is the faculty member’s intellectual property,” Masterson said. “We determined that the student has the right to sit in the class that they paid for and take notes, and really, that’s not the faculty member’s intellectual property. That’s the student’s interpretation of it.”

As part of the committee ruling, Masterson said faculty members and students then were taught through an educational series about what was expected and how an individual student’s notes weren’t guaranteed to be of adequate learning quality.

Online course materials are another ever-changing area of IP discussions. The American Association of University Professors states on its website that while many campus policies on IP are good, they are “being undermined by the online course revolution,” as some institutions reportedly have denied faculty members the traditional rights to the materials they write.

The group indicates that “everyone on campus needs to learn more about the law, the issues at stake and the rights they can assert through collective action.”

Masterson said that online course issues weren’t even “on the radar,” several years ago, but that’s why an IP committee is useful and that the most knowledgeable voice on that committee is the university attorney, Rachael Dockery.

“Having the university attorney being able to keep up on the shifting sands of the landscape is very important,” she said.

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