It’s important for budding student innovators, creators, and inventors to understand how to manage intellectual property (IP) specifically as it relates to an educational setting. This is especially relevant today, as we see a growing number of educational programs encouraging entrepreneurship and invention, as well as business plan competitions, industry-sponsored capstone projects, makerspaces, design-thinking workshops, and other curricular and co-curricular activities.
In this article, we’ll cover the top three things students should know about IP in the academic context, and how to manage the sharing and protection of your ideas.
#1 How (and why) to research your school’s IP policy
Colleges and universities are incubators for intellectual property. Whether you realize it or not, most universities have IP policies that govern ownership, sharing of profits, and third-party IP rights. If you’re engaged in any type of student programs as described above, it’s worth taking a look at your institution’s IP policy. If you can’t readily access a policy on the school website, you should ask your faculty supervisor.
Any work you create based purely on the knowledge you acquire through lectures is your intellectual property. If you work on research or publications with academic staff, you may want to ask exactly who will own the IP rights to the finished product. Sometimes, colleges and universities require students to assign their IP rights to work created substantially within the school’s facilities – however students may be able to share in the benefits in the event of successful commercialization.
Students who conduct sponsored research, on the other hand, are often required to transfer ownership of any IP rights to the sponsor. Sponsored research is typically governed by a contract between the sponsor and the university. Students have a right to be informed of the terms of this sort of research.
It’s worth noting that IP created as an undergraduate is typically owned by the student, whereas IP created as a graduate student is usually owned by the university. For more information on student IP rights in a university setting, you can refer to AUTM’s primer on Managing Student Intellectual Property Issues at Institutions of Higher Education and VentureWell’s quick guide to navigating IP at U.S. universities.
In the event you create IP in a K-12 setting, you most likely own the rights, but should confirm by checking your school’s IP policy. To learn more about common IP rights issues in the K-12 setting, check out Creations of the Mind: Understanding Your School’s Intellectual Property Rights by the National Association of Independent Schools.
#2 How to manage public disclosure rules and IP confidentiality
Most forms of intellectual property law, particularly patents, require that the protected work be original. This means any information that’s made available to the public prematurely can negatively impact the value of the IP.
In a nutshell, a student who discloses information about an invention (or research) before the IP is legally protected could prevent that knowledge from being patented. If there’s an interest in potentially applying for a patent, everyone who has any information about the key features of an invention or idea may want to sign a collaboration agreement that outlines the parties’ respective IP rights – otherwise the value of the information may be diluted (if not entirely destroyed). Many colleges and universities make their collaboration agreements publicly available to provide a transparent framework for divvying up IP rights.
Fortunately, if an accidental disclosure occurs, there’s a short grace period. As long as a patent application is filed within 12 months of the disclosure, the IP may still be protected.
#3 The fundamentals of patent, copyright, and trademark law
Finally, all student innovators, creators, and inventors should have an understanding of exactly what constitutes protectable IP. Here are some fundamentals:
- Patents are exclusive rights granted for an invention, which could be a new product, process, or a technical solution to a problem. Once an inventor is granted a patent, they have the exclusive right to make, use, and sell the innovation for 20 years after the application filing date.
- Copyrights pertain to the rights a creator has for creative work. Some of the types of creative works covered by copyright are books, music, art, films, computer programs, databases, ads, and technical drawings. While it may be wise to register a copyright, creative works are automatically protected as soon as they are “fixed in a tangible medium.”
- Trademarks are distinctive marks which communicate an individual or business’s offerings. Drawings, symbols, phrases, numbers and words can be trademarked. For more trademark basics, you can read our blog piece IP 101: Trademark Fundamentals for the Entrepreneur.
Want to learn more about these IP topics? Check out our free interactive ebook, The Intangible Advantage, or online course Intellectual Property: Inventors, Entrepreneurs, Creators.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article shall be construed as legal advice or as creating an attorney/client relationship.
The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, addresses critical gaps in intellectual property education to empower the next generation of inventors and entrepreneurs. Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon Dr. Gary K. Michelson and Alya Michelson. To learn more, visit 20mm.org.