Student inventors prompt MU to change rules

Monday, January 24, 2011 | 11:31 a.m. CST; updated 6:34 p.m. CST, Monday, January 24, 2011
Student developer Tony Brown displays the applications he helped develop, NearBuy and Newsy, on an Apple iPad and iPhone 4 on Tuesday in Columbia. Brown developed the NearBuy application in 2008 as part of a contest with three other students at MU, earning them a trip to Apple headquarters along with job offers from Google and other technology titans. The app allows users to search local real estate listings from mobile devices.

COLUMBIA — Tony Brown didn't set out to overhaul his college's policies on intellectual property. He just wanted an easier way of tracking local apartment rentals on his iPhone.

The MU journalism student came up with an idea in class that spawned an iPhone application that has had more than 250,000 downloads since its release in March 2009. The app created by Brown and three other undergraduates won them a trip to Apple headquarters along with job offers from Google and other technology companies.

But the invention also raised a perplexing question when university lawyers abruptly demanded a 25 percent ownership stake and two-thirds of any profits. Who owns the patents and copyrights when a student creates something of value on campus, without a professor's help?

"We were incredibly surprised, and intimidated at the same time," Brown said. "You're facing an institution hundreds of years older than you, and with thousands more people. It was almost like there were no other options than to give in."

The issue has been cropping up on campuses across the nation, spurred by the boom in computer software allowing teenagers tinkering in dorm rooms to come up with products that rival the work of professional engineers.

Universities have had long-standing rules for inventions by faculty, generally asserting partial ownership rights to technology created with university resources that have commercial potential. For students, though, policies often were vague because cases didn't come up very often.

With new apps bringing in big money, the legal questions are now being debated across academia. Many universities "generally seek to retain ownership, or at least have a formalized mechanism for assessing ownership of a student's work in much the same way they would regarding a faculty member's work," said Joshua Powers, an Indiana State University professor who studies campus technology transfer.

But Missouri relented in Brown's case. It also wrote rules explicitly giving student inventors the legal right to their unique ideas developed under specific circumstances. If the invention came from a school contest, extracurricular club or individual initiative, the university keeps its hands off. If the student invention came about under a professor's supervision, using school resources or grant money, then the university can assert an ownership right — just as it does for faculty researchers.

No estimate exists on the number or value of student inventions or apps on the market. The Association of University Technology Managers and other industry groups don't track the number of schools that have defined legal protections for student inventors. But technology managers at Missouri and elsewhere suggest the argument for protecting student rights is growing.

"We need to be able to adopt policies that reflect our culture," said Chris Fender, director of technology management and industry relations at MU.

The financial stakes in campus-created inventions are substantial enough that faculty members and universities periodically wind up in lawsuits over them. But MU and some other universities are hoping that giving students more rights, along with other incentives to invent, will make their institutions more attractive to young entrepreneurs.

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh sponsors a project that offers off-campus incubator space, faculty guidance and institutional support to student entrepreneurs who have created dozens of new businesses in recent years. The program recently earned the school a $100,000 award from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City.

Yale University also is trying to promote student entrepreneurship. "We had a great many students trying to create their own inventions, but we really hadn't paid them much attention," said Jim Boyle, director of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. "It's not just the faculty, and the things they create in the labs."

Since its start in early 2007, the Yale University student club has helped launch more than 40 businesses, raised $25 million for start-up costs and led to the creation of 90 full-time jobs in New Haven, Conn., New York and Boston, Boyle said. "We're learning as much from the students as they're learning from us," Boyle said.

But Carnegie-Mellon program coordinator Babs Carryer said an earlier mindset still lives on in academia, in which students are considered anonymous helpers at the service of faculty researchers. "That old paradigm still exists," she said. "I know there are a lot of labs where the students are still indentured servants."

For Brown, who is now a 22-year-old graduate student in journalism at MU, his app, NearBuy, was more of a professional foot in the door than a financial success. It was a free app for prospective homebuyers and apartment hunters, and he had little time for marketing or product development after starting graduate school in the fall. He parlayed the creation into a product development job at, an online video news service.

But the assurance that he will have the legal rights to any future classroom brainstorms is encouraging to Brown. "It would have been terribly frustrating if the door had closed after we went through," he said.


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Paul Allaire January 24, 2011 | 1:14 p.m.

Did I say the other day that I don't even like Mizzou?
I thought so. I forgot about the SCUMBAGS in their legal department.

"But Missouri relented in Brown's case."

I remember reading about that. How many years did it take to "relent"? I bet I know why.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox January 24, 2011 | 1:48 p.m.

Resources, seems a little vague, what's a resource as defined here? Is a resource an atomic reactor or electron microscope, are resources also small things such as electricity and internet? I would argue the school itself is a resource paid for by the tax payers in order to facilitate people such as Mr. Brown. The fact that Mr. Brown has been able to produce a product that resulted in job offers is the goal of the university in the first place. Now I wonder how many Tony Brown's exist for every graduate unable to find a good job and struggling to pay off student debt?

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 24, 2011 | 2:02 p.m.

You underestimate the university. Don't you see that they needed to create work for the graduates of their law program?

(Report Comment)
Keith Politte January 24, 2011 | 2:48 p.m.

Tony and his team NearBuy won the RJI iPhone Student Competition in 2009. The competition's success resulted in the creation of an application development class jointly taught between the College of Engineering and the School of Journalism.

Tony represents the talent that is in abundance on the MU campus. Thankfully, the Board of Curators refreshed the student IP rules in July of 2010 to reflect the capabilities of today's students.

Tony and his teammates share their competition experience while at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference here:

(Report Comment)

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