Almost 20 per cent of universities are claiming the rights to intellectual property developed by students using legally questionable and “outdated” policies, a survey of almost 70 institutions by Times Higher Education suggests.
As a result, university IP policies for students and staff may be hindering entrepreneurship and engagement with industry, experts have warned.
More than 60 universities sent THE their intellectual property policies or a summary of the main points, and 58 of them contain details about provisions for students. In 16 of these, the rights to any IP developed by a student are automatically granted to the institution in the first instance. Another institution’s policy asks for the rights.
At the Royal College of Art, for example, IP rights are held by the university until graduation to protect student works from copyright infringement by third parties. This is a risk when students exhibit their work publicly, a spokeswoman said.
Even the majority of the 48 policies that grant students ownership of their IP contain clauses that allow the university to take ownership under certain circumstances, such as when the IP has been developed using input from staff or substantial university resources, when students have been part of a research project, or when students have signed a specific agreement that states otherwise.
In the case of sponsored students or externally funded work, many policies stipulate that the IP would rest with the third party.
Several policies declared ownership of anything a student developed that was “patentable” or “exploitable”.
Two stated that students own their IP but license their rights to the university on enrolment.
One of these was London Metropolitan University, which said that the clause ensured that the university did not breach copyright when preparing student work for internal processes, such as copying it for second markers. “The licence would not allow the university to publish student work or use it commercially without further agreement from the student,” a spokesman said.
Mandy Haberman, an entrepreneur and a director of the IP Awareness Network, said that there was “huge amounts of confusion” in higher education about IP.
Universities, she continued, are using a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” in policies designed to make it easier to exploit IP without having to trace students after graduation. But in the light of higher tuition fees now charged by universities, this is “outdated”, she said.
“[Students] are paying fees for the tuition, to be exposed to the research and the mentoring opportunities. It is no longer reasonable in my view to automatically expect enrolling students to assign all future IP rights,” she said.
The policies can cause problems for students who may want to exploit their work after graduation as they are left on the “back foot” when they have to negotiate with universities for ownership. “I have read cases where the student has actually found it a hindrance to entrepreneurship because the institution is greedy,” she added.
Charles Oppenheim, visiting professor at the University of Northampton, said that IP-grabbing policies are a result of “ignorance rather than anything else”. But he added that various reports over the past few years – including a 2007 investigation by sector advisory service Jisc Legal – warned universities that such contractual terms were unfair and would not stand up in court.
The situation with the IP rights of staff was more in line with the law, whereby employers automatically own any IP developed by staff. Of the 62 policies that contain details about staff, 57 say that the IP rights would rest with the university. In the remaining five, the university waives its rights to IP developed by staff.
Sebastian Conran, designer in residence in the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering, said that the differences in detail of IP policies at universities are a hindrance for businesses wanting to engage with academia. Having to negotiate different terms for each project “soaks up lots of unnecessary time and causes resentment”, he said.
“If there is a standard way of doing things, it is much easier to do business,” he said, adding that the UK should look to California for best practice to create a nationwide policy to which all universities subscribe.
Six universities said that they were updating their policies and did not send any details of their existing ones to THE. Seven others that did provide their policies said that they were also under review.