Classroom IP

The ownership of intellectual property (IP) developed in the classroom is a tricky topic.  Let’s suppose a team of 4 students (Team ZZ)  is in a business innovation class.  For a full semester Team ZZ will refine a business idea, create a business model, do a marketing analysis and competitive landscape review, and develop a company launch plan.  It is a lot of work.  Let’s assume that the team performs well and all members pull their weight.  And, at the end of the semester one of the team members (student #1) wants to launch the company.

For clarity’s sake, I am not addressing in this post university ownership of intellectual property.  A university typically does own the IP produced by its employees in the course of their university work.  So, when a faculty member or PhD student invents something during their research, the university will own it (just like Cisco owns the IP created by its employees).  Importantly, students that “pay” to go to the university (like undergrads and masters degree candidates) are not employees and the university typically does not own IP produced by them.  In my example, let’s assume the students on Team ZZ are all MBA candidates in the business school (so are not employees).

So, on Team ZZ, who owns the business idea?  Does student #1 have stronger ownership rights than student #2?  Do each of the 4 students own the idea equally?

The answer will depend on the following key factors: (i) who came up with the idea and (ii) did the members of Team ZZ agree up front on ownership rights?  The matter is not a simple one even if the core idea was student #1’s (in other words, student #1 brought the idea to Team ZZ).  For example, the other students might have added to the idea or figured out the business model to commercialize the idea.  So, it becomes critical to agree up front on ownership rights in writing.  If the core idea was student #1’s, the best approach would be for student #1 to get the other students on the team to assign their rights to the idea and team output to student #1.  The argument is “hey, this is my idea that I am bringing to you and you are getting credit for your course work”.  The argument is sound.  The agreement should be signed up at the beginning of the project.  It really is the only way to make the matter cut and dry and safe for student #1.  And there are many variations in the assignment of rights.  For example, the team members could agree to assign all rights to 2 students instead or could agree to assign all rights to the team as whole with ownership percentages specifically spelled out.

If you want to see a form of assignment of rights feel free to email me.


2 thoughts on “Classroom IP

  1. Hi Zach,

    Here’s a twist on that post… Say a student team has to develop a business plan for a course, and does it around some technology at the University (since they didn’t have their own idea). They put together a great plan, and identify some really solid market opportunities that the tech transfer office never even knew about. Upon completion of the course (or graduation), they decide not to launch the business. Who owns their work product? Can the university take that business plan, and shop it around to someone else to launch a company? Or talk to potential licensees that were identified by the student team in that plan – which TTO didn’t know about before the student team identified it?

    Obviously some very nitty gritty questions – but I bring them up because we just talked about these issues last month. A lot of business plans get written in b-schools around the country, some of which might be pretty good opportunities. What should we do with them? What are we legally allowed to do with them?


    • Thanks Jim. My thought is that the students for sure own the work product. The university could ask for it or pay them for it, and then shop it around. The plan is worthless without the university IP so I would think that the students would have some incentive to sell the plan for a reasonable amount. If the students share the plan with the TTO (even if they just let them read it), then the TTO would be able to shop the ideas to licensees. From a legal perspective, the TTOs would be well served by paying students (not much) for their plans!

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