Intellectual property

Recently, someone external to my university requested access to data. At first, I thought nothing of it, but decided I’d check in with my supervisor just in case. I was surprised to get a cautionary email warning me about copyright and intellectual property, two things I had hardly considered. Apparently, when sharing data with externals, it is advisable to apply for an IP or get a confidentiality agreement signed. Knowing nothing about either, I decided to do a little digging. Here’s what I found.

Copyright, fundamentally, is a system that allows the creator of work to receive the benefit of the work. Something I just learned today is that copyright does not protect an idea itself, but the form in which that idea is expressed. This means that if someone works out a way to express the same idea in an original way, it does not infringe copyright. This is something to be aware of in the other direction too, that is, you should be careful not to use someone else’s work without putting the correct measures in place. This may just be as simple as sending a copyright permission request for the copyright holder to sign.

Different universities and nations have slightly different policies in place, so you should always check in with the relevant staff before making a decision. Certainly don’t take this summary of a few hours of research as a definitive guide! My university has a body set up specifically for copyright, patents and IP, and many others do as well. If unsure where to start, your supervisor or head of school are the best bets, or even a more senior PhD student if you want someone a little closer to your situation.

Never assume that you will automatically have the rights to your work. If you don’t read the fine print, terms and conditions of agreements, now is probably a good time to start. If you don’t believe that the T&C’s can be deceitful, just check out these exerts from the Facebook Messenger’s agreements.

  • “Allows the app to call phone numbers without your intervention. This may result in unexpected charges or calls. Malicious apps may cost you money by making calls without your confirmation.”
  • “Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.”
  • “Allows the app to read your phone’s call log, including data about incoming and outgoing calls. This permission allows apps to save your call log data, and malicious apps may share call log data without your knowledge.”
  • “Allows the app to read data about your contacts stored on your phone, including the frequency with which you’ve called, emailed or communicated in other ways with specific individuals.”

Earlier this year I was told about a horror story where a PhD candidate developed a new technology, but didn’t protect it. Sometime later, his supervisor and the university took the invention and profited from it – Thus ensued a lengthy court battle. Trust me, you want to avoid this, and it’s worth taking a few hours at the start of your PhD to understand your rights and obligations.

One thought on “Intellectual property”

  1. Confidentiality Agreements between two entities are common place in the corporate world and neither party should find the desire to have one in place offensive. As you intimate, these agreements work protect the rights of both parties, even though they are rarely ‘iron-clad’.

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