Do I Own What I Create In College?

Lightbulb - Idea Ownership

The short answer is … maybe.   Many research-focused universities claim ownership of Intellectual Property (IP) or ideas developed while you are in attendance (or sometimes, before and after you attend or work) at that university.  Other, smaller (usually ‘teaching’) universities and colleges have more liberal IP rules.

This question was asked by one of my students during the first week of classes this year, which surprised me. 
Because it is a critically important question that very few students (or faculty) ask!   Over the last 20+ years of teaching at the university level, only three students have asked this very important question.  I hope that many more think about the question and just do not ask.

What is Intellectual Property?
Intellectual Property is a paper, manuscript, computer program, design, or creative expression (painting, character for a book or game, drawing, story, composition (including music and dance routines), etc) that a patient, copyright, or trademark could be applied for.  In other words, it is an ORIGINAL work, not just an idea you had at 3 AM and told your best friend about.  Notice the word work. It does not say ‘original idea’. Here is a quick summary of the differences between different types of IP

Why do some universities claim ownership of my ideas?
Why is IP important to the college student?  Because the ideas that are developed are very important.  Whether it is a university professor publishing one of their student’s papers or a university claiming ownership of scientific developments and patenting them, IP becomes very important.  Potentially meaning tenure for a faculty (and credit for an original idea) or millions of dollars for a university through patents, of which a student may or may not see any credit or financial reward.

Some colleges (primarily Research I universities, but others as well) rely heavily on their ownership of patents and copyrights to supplement their income.  To enforce this lucrative financial infusion to the university, they have IP rules for their faculty and students that claim ownership over IP development of the faculty or students.  In some extreme cases, this applies to past, present, and future research and developments. While a seemingly ridiculous claim, they make it nonetheless.  Always read the university policy on Intellectual Property!

Working for a college or company
Of course, if you work for any organization and are being paid to develop or research ideas, you do not have a right to the IP that is created for the organization (but hopefully you will at least receive acknowledgment for your development).  In other words, if you are being paid by a company or college to write a paper on a subject, they own the copyright to that paper (unless some other agreement has been made in writing). If you are being paid to develop software for a company, that company owns the software that you write.  

Check the Syllabus
Some faculty include information about Intellectual Property in their syllabus.  This is especially true if they intend to publish or develop ideas that arise from the class.  Usually, this is included to protect the professor teaching the class from some random student claiming they gave the professor an idea that the professor later developed and published. 
If you are in a class where original content is developed, be sure to review the syllabus, university policies, and ASK THE PROFESSOR during class.  If you are not comfortable with the requirements either drop the class or do not share any of your great ideas during class.

The “Using Significant University Resources” rule
At most colleges and universities, there is the inclusion of the statement on “Using Significant University Resources”.  Generally, this means that you own the IP unless you are using some expensive piece of equipment for the research. It generally does not mean using the campus internet, computer, or printer to work on a story or program (again, generally, but I’ve seen some where such resource are considered significiant).  It varies by the college (or company). Your safest situation is to only use a computer and equipment that you purchased if you are concerned about any challenge to the IP.

“Developed” is a keyword!
If you do even a cursory review of IP laws, you will notice that only developed ideas can be copyrighted, patented, or trademarked.  Having an idea is not enough to claim IP. If you share an idea and someone else develops it, without some type of documentation (i.e., you wrote it down and developed it!), you will have a very difficult time proving it was your idea.

Even then, sharing an idea goes through many human filters, with many possible interpretations of that idea.  They might have used your idea as a springboard for their own ideas. Claiming ownership of their finished project will be very difficult (and is rather petty on your part). Go make your idea!  There is a reason that in all Intellectual Property discussion you will see the term original work.  If you haven’t put any work into the idea, then it isn’t an intellectual property.  You cannot claim to be an ‘idea person’ and expect to make money.  

Defense of IP
One of the key components of any Intellectual Property process is that you have to be prepared to defend your IP.  If you develop a project, publish it, and get the appropriate IP protection, you are expected to protect that IP. Game developers, film companies, musicians, authors, and all major owners of IP diligently protect their content, down to the sound a character makes when they jump in a game.  You will need to be prepared to protect your IP. You may have noticed there have been recent controversies around some presidential candidates using musicians’ songs at their campaign rallies without the musician’s approval. While it might seem minor, this is part of protecting their IP.

Protect What You Write/Develop!
I made the mistake shortly after finishing my dissertation to agreeing to rewrite my research and publishing it through a small publisher.  In that process, I gave up some of my ownership rights to that research. The publisher did publish the book, but at a price that I found exorbitant.  While I have since rewritten and updated the research (thus creating new IP), it was an important and valuable lesson. Be very careful with whom you share your work and allow to publish.  Have the contract reviewed by a lawyer.
That experience is one of the reasons why I started my own publishing company for the textbooks that I have authored.  While I have had many offers from major academic publishers since that first experience (and probably would have made more money), the satisfaction of maintaining ownership of what I have authored is very rewarding.

The Other Route
Another way to deal with IP is to go the public domain route.  Publishing your research in an open journal or software on an open website such as or with open source licensing is one way to ensure that what you have created becomes available to the public.  Just be careful that you are not breaking any organizational agreements or policies in the process.

What do you think?
Did I miss something?  Have you had similar or different experiences?  Let me know in the comments!

Dr. Burton has been teaching at the university level for over twenty years.  The opinions expressed in this article are just that, opinions, and should not be considered in any way legal advice.  If you have questions regarding the application of Intellectual Property law, please consult a lawyer.  

© 2019 – Brian Burton, Ed.D.  Dr. Professor-Dad

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