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Student Jailed Over Invention -- What Rights Do Students Have?

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?


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Comments : 2 - Last Post : Apr 20, 2009 12:00 PM by: gburfield
re: Student Jailed Over Invention -- What Rights Do Students Have?
Posted by shinton: Apr 20, 2009 10:26 AM

This is such a tragic tale! It is unthinkable that a university would pursue a jail sentence for a student over an invention. And if the U.S. patent office agreed that the young man was the owner of the patent, who is the University of South Florida to say "No, it's ours"? This seems like one of those "good old boy" deals where someone at the university knew someone in the court system, etc, etc and they just railroaded this poor guy and treeated him like an armed felon. I hope we NEVER see another miscarriage of justice like this. Shame on the university and their lawyers!!

re: Student Jailed Over Invention -- What Rights Do Students Have?
Posted by gburfield: Apr 20, 2009 12:00 PM

I was really surprised by this story. I am working on my Master's at Georgia State and I looked up their invention policy. Section 2 of GSU's intellectual property policy says that it "applies to students and all university employees..." and then goes on to say that if the student is "not employed by the University" and the intellectual property was created "solely for the purpose of satisfying a course requirement" then the Creator (student) would retain ownership.


This actually leaves some issues open to question. Say you work in the library, but invent something in the course of your studies. Does your work in the library give GSU the right to own the work? Also, what if the research you do results in an invention, but you had to take a couple of extra steps to get from course requirement to invention and you did so out of curiosity or dedication - do those extra steps negate my rights to own my invention?


I really do question any university laying claim to its students inventions when the students are already paying tuition for instruction and laboratory access. 

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