Archive: Does someone else own your work? — from the Career Opportunities Podcast

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Do you really own the rights to your great new invention? How about the copyright of your latest novel? What about the first novel you wrote while you were in college? If you don’t pay close attention to patent and copyright policies of your schools and your workplace, you could be in for a very ugly surprise.

This week, while attending the monthly Geek Dinner here in Los Angeles, I met a young gentleman who developed a system for random number generation. In fact, this system was so important you may have read about him on Slashdot and other online news sources. During our conversation, an interesting fact came out. Despite the fact that he had developed this system himself, he did not own the rights to patent. He could not license the information and, in some ways, was even prevented from talking about the patent except in the vaguest terms. While he is able to exploit his discoveries in other ways, the fact is, his university owns all the rights because he was a student there at the time he developed his system.


Books by Douglas E. Welch

The concept that a university could own the rights to your creative endeavors gave me food for thought. I have dealt with the copyright issues involved when I was writing while still in a corporate job, but I hadn’t thought about it lately. Since I work for myself, there is very little occasion when I fall under the typical work-for-hire stipulations that you find in many contracts. So, I sat down with the usual online resources and began investigating the policies at several well-known universities.


One of the first items I noticed is, many university policies on patent and copyright at one time only applied to the administration, faculty and staff of the university. Students, it seems, were exempted unless they were also employees of the school. Several policies though have since been amended to add both graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the policy, as well, probably because their fellowships qualify them as being on the payroll of the university. In my basic research, though, I didn’t turn up any policy that applied to undergraduate students. So there are no worries about the university owning those bad poems you wrote freshman year.

What this policy review shows, though, is that you need to be very aware of the policies that apply to you and your work, whether in an academic forum or in a corporate workplace. While these policies are similar in many ways, individual businesses can often have stricter policies. In some cases, companies can try to declare all work produced while you are employed, both inside and outside the workplace, as work-for-hire and therefore property of the company.

What to look for?

If you have substantial creative work that is produced outside your day-to-day job, you should contact your company’s legal department and get a clear understanding of the policies that might effect you. If you are being offered a job with a company, you will want to investigate these policies before agreeing to take the position. Otherwise, you might find yourself handing over your creative rights to your new company. In fact, if you have already created a substantial invention that might be patentable, or written a copyrightable work, you may need to explicitly exclude this from any hiring agreement in order to protect yourself. If you fail to do so, you might be in for a long road of litigation in the future.

Such thoughts about patents and copyrights rarely entered the minds of most workers in the past, unless they were high-level chemists or engineers who might create entirely new concepts or materials. Today, though, it is a rare worker who doesn’t have outside interests and outside projects that might, one day, turn into a product or service worth millions of dollars. Whenever large amounts of money are involved, strict policies about who receives that money are sure to be found. Don’t be blindsided by the policies of your school or business when it comes to patents and copyright. Your future career success depends on the continued ownership of your creative works and the income they may generate. You want your work to enrich your life and expand your career, not the bottom line of your employer.


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