IP & Copyright

New University of Pittsburgh Policies Require Faculty to Sign Away IP Rights

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In an ironic twist of punny fate, the University of Pittsburgh, endearingly nicknamed “Pitt,” is beginning to gain a reputation that is now (you got it)…the pits. As is common at institutions of higher education, the University of Pittsburgh possesses significant resources, allowing for in-depth research in various fields. All of that sounds wonderfully intellectual and peachy…until the bill comes. Research is expensive and so, as one might have guessed, grants and other federal support pick up the tab.

Now, this may sound like a lot more accounting than law: How much money will it cost in grants to develop IP that will make more money? Pitt claimed earlier this month though, that in order to ensure the receipt of federal research funding, all faculty members must offer their signatures in accord with school policies—including signing away their intellectual property rights.

The university advised faculty and nonclerical employees to sign documents upholding that they “irrevocably assign and transfer to the university my rights, title and interest to all intellectual property” they develop while employed at the educational institution. With so much research happening at this school, signing this document may mean signing away rights to a medical cure, a scientific discovery or any other intangible yet valuable IP treasure.

Pitt stands behind its presentation of these agreements to faculty, explaining that these arrangements are consistent with its standard intellectual property policies. The school’s administration also says that their request for signatures simply stems from a 2011 Supreme Court case (Stanford v. Roche) affirming that schools must implement IP policies and ensure compliance with said policies.

The signatures are not actually required to secure grant funding, however. Therefore, many are opposed to this idea, including former president of the American Association of University Professors, Cary Nelson, who expressed his sentiments to  the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Everyone says your academic freedom gives you the right to decide which kind of research you do”, Nelson says. “Your academic freedom doesn’t end when you create something valuable. It extends to how that [research] enters the world.”

Others who support the school argue that the relinquishment of personal intellectual property rights is appropriate as it qualifies as a term of employment. In addition, some maintain that Pitt deserves the profit because it grants access to the research resources, crediting Pitt with creating an environment that fosters the IP.

In its own defense, the University of Pittsburgh has cited numerous other colleges with similar agreements in place.

The University of Pittsburgh is no stranger to IP drama. In January, a research team sued the school over intellectual property rights to research that shows promise for a  new lung disease vaccine.

At Pitt’s faculty assembly meeting, the deadline for collected signatures was postponed from its original deadline of September 16, allowing for more time to examine the agreements. A panel was asked to recommend new policies by September 30. The decision to reexamine this procedure came after the University was met with complaints by faculty members who were upset to learn that failure to turn in a signed document by the original deadline would result in the school’s “inability” (or seemingly, unwillingness) to process their federal grant proposals.

Pitt’s existing IP policy states that the inventor “will normally receive 30 percent and the university 70 percent of the net financial returns from the licensing or other transfer of patent rights or other intellectual property rights.” Although the idea of a ratio seems archaic in a world where various forms of IP are everywhere, assessment for compensation on a case-by-case basis drains university resources, as well.

With exactly one week left until the reform deadline, we’ll just have to wait and see who fares better in this IP policy pitfall.




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