In the early 1990s, University of South Florida student Petr Táborský was charged with criminal theft by his university, jailed and served time on a chain gang. The crime in question? Keeping his notebooks with his own research notes!
The controversy began when a Florida utility company gave a $20,000 grant to the university to find out if clinoptilolite (a kitty-litter like substance) could be cleaned with bacteria to be reused for wastewater treatment. Táborský was hired as an assistant on the project which ended after three months with no positive results found.
Later, he asked if he could continue researching the material as the subject of his Master's thesis. His Dean, Dr. Robert Carnahan, who had overseen the clinoptilolite project, granted Táborský permission. The student abandoned the bacterial approach and instead found success by super-heating the substance.
When he told Dr. Carnahan about his discovery, the Dean told him his discovery would belong to USF. Táborský disagreed and ultimately the student was jailed. He was later released, but not until he spent years in jail on two separate occasions, in conditions usually reserved for violent criminals.
The U.S. Patent Office sided with Táborský and granted him the patent on his innovation and a patent application filed by Dr. Robert Carnahan was turned down because of an obvious lack of understanding of the innovation subject matter.
Fortunately nothing this extreme has happened again to a student researcher, but the question of student's rights in their inventions is still a hot topic. Because university facilities may be used in developing an innovation, many university intellectual property policies now extend to students, and they may not even be aware of it.
A question for consideration is, since students are paying tuition, and if this tuition covers classroom time and use of laboratory facilities, then effectively they have paid for the use of university resources used in the development of an innovation. If the university then stakes an ownership claim over the invention, aren't they "double dipping"?
For example, compared to copyright law (another intellectual property arena), if you rent studio time to record your music, would you allow the owner of the studio to claim rights in your songs? To keep a share of the profit from the sale of your music?
IEEE, the world's leading professional association for the advancement of technology, recommends that only innovations developed by students in conjunction with funded research or using resources in excess of what is normally provided to students should be owned by the university. IP developed in the course of their education and using a normal amount of university resources would be student-owned, according to their recommendations.
While some universities allow more latitude for innovations developed by undergraduate students, most do assert ownership over the work of their graduate and doctoral students.
Does your university have an intellectual property policy that applies to students? Do you know whether you would be entitled to own an innovation you develop as a student or whether you would have to assign it to your university?