UoL Library Blog

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Current issues in intellectual property rights and knowledge transfer

Posted by benwynne2 on 25 October, 2010

I attended a one day workshop on intellectual property rights (IPR) and knowledge transfer organised by the UK Council for Graduate Education on 22nd October.

The topic of intellectual property rights and knowledge transfer is, of course, vast. The particular focus of the workshop was the influence which these rights have on the management of the research process and the dissemination of research results by research students – illustrated by a number of practical examples.

Electronic theses
The workshop began with an overview of the British Library’s electronic theses service – EThOS – from Joanna Newman who is Head of Higher Education at the British Library. EThOS enables anyone to track down the details of over 250,000 UK university theses and to access individual theses electronically where available – or to order a digitised copy. The service has seen a huge increase in use since it was launched (in beta) in January 2009. In fact, such was the increase in use that for a period the British Library struggled to meet requests for digitisation of theses. This fact alone illustrates the potential which Web delivery has to increase access to UK theses which were previously difficult to trace and obtainable only on microfilm from the British Library or on paper from the awarding institution’s library.

Joanna Newman stressed the major cultural shift which the increased visibility and accessibility of UK theses represents. Greater access brings great benefits in disseminating research results but it also requires greater understanding of intellectual property rights (and respecting those rights) – those of the student writing the thesis, those owning rights in any ‘third party’ materials included and those who may have funded or contributed to the research.

These are all issues which will be very familiar to colleagues at the University of Leicester. General discussion stressed the importance of teaching students about the IPR implications of their work – from as early on as possible so that these implications can be planned and accounted for. Just the sort of thing which we try to address in our Dealing with copyright for your e-thesis workshops.

A recent BL survey found that 80% of UK universities have moved – or plan to move – to including a requirement for electronic submission of theses as part of their thesis submission procedures.

So, in only a few years, ‘electronic theses’ have gone from being very much the exception to becoming almost mainstream.

This transition has sometimes required universities to review their intellectual property policies – policies which have also often required review in the context of knowledge transfer and growing links with industry as the next presentation from Sarah Boulton of the Research and Enterprise Directorate at the University of Plymouth illustrated.

Issues arising when generating IP through PG research students and post-docs
Sarah Boulton’s presentation covered almost every aspect of IPR in overview – illustrating the many issues which can arise when managing IPR created by research students. Copyright, of course, but also patents, database right, design right and trade marks.

There was a lively discussion about who owns the IPR created by a research student. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act is clear on this point – but the position can be altered by contract as so often where IPR is concerned.

The default under the Act is that the student owns the rights in her/his own work (in the case of an employee, the default is that the employer owns the rights). There are exceptions, of course – where research is sponsored/paid for by a company and a requirement of this sponsorship is the company owns the rights or that they are shared in some way.

Some noted instances of universities requiring students to assign their rights to the university as part of the student registration process. Approaches vary with some dubious about the validity and acceptability of requiring blanket assigning of rights in this way.

Sarah Boulton’s presentation was followed by case studies of how IPR had been handled (or mishandled) as part of research studentships. The missing element in each case study was a clear written agreement between all the parties concerned on who would own IPR arising from the research before the research began (all the case studies included a commercial sponsor of some kind).

These case studies illustrated once again what an influence contract law has on the practical exercise and management of IPR.

The workshop concluded with what I found the most useful part of the day – a presentation from a former PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Reading who had combined a Knowledge Transfer Partnership placement with doing his PhD. This enabled him to work for a university business park company for two years on work directly related to his PhD – and then complete his PhD in the third year (although securing the funding for this could have become an issue). He had since returned to the compay as a full time employee.

This arrangement had included an explicit written agreement between the University and the company about how the IPR arising would be managed (and it led to a patent).

The agreement did give rise to some restrictions for the student; he had to be careful about what he presented at conferences and access to his thesis was embargoed for five years.

This illustrated the delicate balance that so often needs to be struck between the required academic outcomes from a PhD and its business/future professional value to the student and others.

I know that many if not all of the issues I have outlined here will be very familiar to colleagues.

However, the workshop did strongly illustrate for me how the digital environment has placed effective management and understanding of IPR in the research process centre stage. There is nothing new about IPR but now the issues to which it can give rise need to be addressed at a very early stage before research begins and then actively managed. And many university staff need to engage with and understand these issues – with academics, Graduate Office, library and research/enterprise office people all represented at the workshop.

Update 12 Nov 2010: Some presentations from this workshop are now available at

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