Student Inventions, Intellectual Property, and the Bottom Line
Recently, the A.P. reported that the University of Missouri engaged in an embarrassing legal battle with one of its own students. Mr. Brown designed an award winning iPhone app to track local apartment availability. The app was wildly successful, which presumably explains why Mr. Brown subsequently received a letter from the University’s lawyers, informing him that the university owned a portion of his invention and was due the majority of any revenue generated. While the University eventually relented, and even went so far as to draft new rules relating to student inventions, the conflict suggests important lessons for students everywhere in the modern age.
In the internet era, anyone with basic programming or html skills and an insight into an unmet societal need can create a work of significant value (see everything from iPhone apps to Facebook). The central value of such inventions resides in the intellectual property rights to exclude others from reproducing them. Historically, schools have not required a set policy to address student inventions because it was extremely rare for students to create or discover new inventions absent significant involvement of professors. However, the technical barriers to innovation on the internet are minimal, and students need only contribute creativity and vision to generate potentially valuable discoveries. This new capacity for discovery comes with a price, as students may have to fight to retain ownership of their inventions.
The University of Missouri’s new policy allows students to retain ownership of their inventions, as long as faculty members did not directly guide the development of the invention. However, policies at different institutions may vary, and it is unrealistic to suggest that a high school student consider prospective colleges’ I.P. policies when choosing which school to attend. The interesting question then is where schools should draw the line. Copyright recognizes a right for employers to claim I.P. generated by employees within the scope of employment (while patent arrives at the same effect via contractual assignments). Such an analysis might consider University resources used to accomplish the task, and whether the invention furthered a course of study fostered by the University. However, students hardly fit the mold of traditional “employees,” as they are paying the school for the right to attend. Thus, the University of Missouri’s rules strike an interesting balance, apparently drawing the line at the role that a professor plays in directing the development of the invention. This line appears to allow students to maintain control of inventions generated in response to school contests or events, as long as the work is completed by the student without direct professorial oversight.
While the University of Missouri reacted to its negative press by drafting a policy that was decidedly skewed toward protecting student interests, it would not be surprising to see other institutions stake out a more aggressive position regarding student-generated intellectual property. It will be interesting to follow the development of these policies, how they are received by the general public, and whether they can be defended from the inevitable legal challenges to come.