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iPhone App Raises Questions About Who Owns Student Inventions

An iPhone app designed by a team of students for a contest at the University of Missouri at Columbia has helped lead the institution to rewrite its intellectual-property policies.

Members of the student competition, hosted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, had been informed that the university might assert a partial or complete claim to the products that the students were creating. That led some students to drop out, said Anthony Brown, then an undergraduate in the department of journalism.

Mr. Brown and his team, made up of fellow students Zhenhua Ma, Dan Wang, and Peng Zhuang, decided to stay in, despite their concerns. When they won the competition with an app called NearBuy, the students decided to contact the university to assert their ownership and to ask the university to waive any intent to assert ownership.

They argued that student inventions, even if fostered to some degree by faculty mentors, stood apart from the work done by faculty members using university resources.

Leaders of the journalism department signed letters in support of the students’ case. “Today’s students have a skill sets that simply were not reflected in the old intellectual-property rules,” said Keith Politte, manager of the Technology Testing Center at Reynolds Journalism Institute and one of the creators of the competition in which Mr. Brown was involved. The old intellectual-property rules “frustrated everyone who had an interest in supporting student entrepreneurship,” Mr. Politte said. And they provided the university system with a different level of ownership “depending on how you interpreted them,” he explained.

Administrators ultimately agreed with the students and said they could maintain full ownership of their app, which has been downloaded over a quarter of a million times since its release.

In part because of the case, the university decided to rewrite its intellectual-property policy to better address student inventions.

Michael F. Nichols, vice president for research and economic development for the Missouri system, led the initiative to rewrite the rules, and he found that his peers at other institutions had little advice on how to deal with student work.

The rules now cover everything from work students do as part of a class, to student work created as part of a competition, to work students do in an extracurricular group that is sponsored by the university. “We want to make clear the rights of the university and the rights of the student,” he said.

Ashley H. Stevens, president of the Association of University Technology Managers, said policies for intellectual property at many universities only address the inventions of faculty members, not students. “This issue comes up in entrepreneurship courses in business schools, where students often use the courses to develop their own business ideas that they intend to pursue after graduation, and they need to know that the university is not going to claim an ownership interest in the business,” he said.

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