Who owns your research?

by Catherine Aman

Fans of The Big Bang Theory may recall the episode in which Sheldon, Leonard and Wolowitz try to patent the infinite persistence gyroscope they’ve jointly devised.

At a meeting in Caltech’s tech transfer office, the trio is horrified to learn that the university will take 75 percent of any proceeds. Not only that but Wolowitz, an employee of NASA not the university, stands to get nothing.

How much of this is fiction and how much reality? First, as any physicist will tell you, an infinitely spinning gyroscope is impossible. (Though the idea does have a great Cambridge University connection.) Second, at least here at Cambridge Enterprise, technology managers do not work in private offices, in solitary splendour.

The three inventors’ outrage, however, has the ring of truth.

When you’re working in a lab, it’s natural to assume that your ideas belong solely to you. But often this is not the case. The ownership of intellectual property (IP) actually depends on a number of factors, such as your funding and your employer.

At Cambridge Enterprise, we regularly disentangle IP ownership issues. Two members of our Physical Sciences team, Julian Peck and Jennie Flint, are conducting a series of informal lunchtime talks on IP rights at the Department of Chemistry.

The first in the series, Who owns your research?, was held in May. For anyone who missed that session, the answer is “it depends”.

If you’re a University of Cambridge student, you own your work, subject to any conditions in your funding contract or that of anyone you’re working with.

If you’re a postdoc or PI, you are an employee of the University and thus subject to its IP policy. The policy, which was last updated in 2005, states that the University (via Cambridge Enterprise) has first rights to file any registrable IP, usually a patent.

There are, however, a number of exceptions. Third party rights in research contracts, for instance, always take precedence. And, in some cases, researchers are permitted to opt out of working with Cambridge Enterprise.

If you think you have some useful intellectual property and you’re not sure about ownership, phone or email Jennie, Julian or any of the Tech Transfer team here.

And come to the next two IP sessions in the Department of Chemistry, U202. They start at 12:30; there’s no need to pre-book and lunch is provided.

At What is the inventive step in chemistry? on 28 June, patent attorney Simon Fortt will join us to discuss what makes research patentable, focusing on chemistry inventions.

Who owns your software? on 13 September, will tackle the question of who has what rights in any code you have written for use in your research, how software can be commercialised and what happens if it’s open-source.

So, was the episode accurate? Let’s just say that if Sheldon, Leonard and Wolowitz worked at Cambridge, it would have had a serious shortage of dramatic tension.

Inventors here get 90 percent of any proceeds up to £140,000, 60 percent to the next £140,000 and after that 34 percent. (It’s all spelled out here.) So maybe it’s time for Sheldon, Leonard and Wolowitz to relocate?

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