Protecting our intellectual property: A consideration of the College’s rights to student and faculty work

February 17, 2016 by The Williams Record Editorial Board

The intellectual property ad-hoc committee has taken important steps to institute an effective policy governing intellectual property at the College. The proposed policy, modeled after Bates’s and Wellesley’s, will provide concrete guidelines for scenarios that have historically been handled on an informal, case-by-case basis.

While the recent efforts to develop rules regarding intellectual property move the College in the right direction, the preceding lack of such policy was a significant oversight, especially in light of how many of the College’s peer institutions already had such policies in place. Although the College is generally respectful of the work of students, faculty and staff, without specific institutional rules regarding intellectual property, the College can technically claim ownership over any work created by community members. Therefore, the College must establish formal guidelines for intellectual property instead of handling cases as they arise.

Similar to the protocols at other institutions, the College’s policy should include separate student, faculty and staff guidelines. The roles these groups play in the community vary greatly, and the ad-hoc committee must acknowledge this dynamic in its proposal.

The new policy the committee is currently considering will ensure that professors largely retain rights over their own work, something we believe is a positive step and in line with the College’s desire to foster an environment of exciting and innovative scholarship. Of course, in cases where the College has invested exceptional resources in a professor’s work or has some other large vested interest, the College can sensibly have some ownership in the final project.

Likewise, the College should not extend intellectual property rights so far that the free exchange of things like syllabi is limited. In developing course curricula, we believe professors should be allowed to draw on and use previous course syllabi and readings that other professors have compiled in the past. This would be particularly useful for professors teaching survey courses. However, professors should still request permission from their colleagues to use these materials.

On the other hand, we believe rules about student work should take into account students’ unpaid roles at the College. There are many situations in which students are not compensated for their work, such as general coursework or theses. A thesis, in particular, requires significant additional personal effort on the part of students and therefore should not be the sole property of the College. If a student expands a thesis or independent project into a book or other published work after graduating, as it stands, the College could potentially assert ownership over at least part of the project. Although the College would probably not take this step, the committee must outline the specific protocols for governing student intellectual property to avoid these potential ambiguities. Students, who are not paid and are likely unaware of the College’s current rights to their work, are particularly vulnerable without a policy in place.

However, in the case that a student receives significant funding from the College to conduct research in a College-owned space, works under the close advising of a professor on a College project or is employed by the College as a research assistant, the College might have grounds to claim partial ownership of the work produced.

Many community members are currently unaware of the College’s potential to assert rights to their work. If the faculty and Board of Trustees approve the proposed policy, the ad-hoc committee needs to publicize the changes sufficiently and provide accessible explanations of the policy as it applies to the work of each group.

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