Who Owns Student Inventions Created on School Property: School or Student?


February 1, 2011
by Suada Kolovic
Imagine this: There’s a contest at your university to create the next big iPhone app, the next Angry Birds if you will. On a whim, you decide to enter and miraculously (or not so miraculously given your tech savvy) you win! You’re overcome with pride and joy and begin fantasizing about a life of excess. It’s only after you’ve mentally purchased everything under the sun that reality sets in and you realize you haven’t read the fine print: The university where you did the bulk of your designing may assert a partial or complete claim to the product you’ve created. If you think that’s less than awesome, then you’re right on par with a group of students at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Imagine this: There’s a contest at your university to create the next big iPhone app, the next Angry Birds if you will. On a whim, you decide to enter and miraculously (or not so miraculously given your tech savvy) you win! You’re overcome with pride and joy and begin fantasizing about a life of excess. It’s only after you’ve mentally purchased everything under the sun that reality sets in and you realize you haven’t read the fine print: The university where you did the bulk of your designing may assert a partial or complete claim to the product you’ve created. If you think that’s less than awesome, then you’re right on par with a group of students at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

The team of said students designed an iPhone app for a contest hosted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. To be fair, the university did inform students of the policy prior to entering the competition which led to some students dropping out, said Anthony Brown, then an undergraduate in the department of journalism. But despite their reservations, Mr. Brown and his team, fellow students Zhenhua Ma, Dan Wang and Peng Zhuang, decided they’d stay in. They won the competition with an app called NearBuy (which gives you the ability to search for condos and houses by location using the iPhone's built-in locate-me technologies) and contacted the university to assert their ownership and to ask the university to waive any intent to assert ownership, according to the Chronicle. They argued that student inventions, even if fostered to some degree by faculty mentors, stood apart from the work done by faculty members using university resources.

Faculty members of the journalism department signed letters supporting the students’ case. And ultimately administrators agreed with the students and allowed them to maintain full ownership of their app, which to date has been downloaded over a quarter of a million times.

To some extent because of the case, the University of Missouri decided to rewrite its intellectual-property policy to better address student inventions. According to Michael F. Nichols, vice president for research and economic development for the Missouri system, the rules now cover everything from work students do as part of a class, to student work created as part of a competition, to work students do in an extracurricular group that is sponsored by the university. Keep in mind Missouri’s regulations aren’t the norm at all universities. How would you feel knowing, or not knowing for that matter, that if you were to create something on campus your university would have the rights to it?

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