Who Owns Your Great Idea?

The New York Times:

Peter Zummo, a senior double-majoring in design and mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is used to explaining the products he thinks up for his studio-class assignments. But last spring, he found himself answering questions of a different kind in a conference room at Rensselaer’s office of technology commercialization, which tracks and patents inventions made on campus.

Zummo and his classmate Matthew Naples had designed a water bottle that could be filled with sand and reused as a brick to build housing in developing countries. The director of the office, Charles Rancourt, wanted to know: When had they come up with their design? Had they held brainstorming sessions on campus or off? What equipment had they used to produce their prototypes?

Colleges and universities own the ideas and technologies invented by the people who work for them, including professors and graduate students who are paid to do research. Most universities also own inventions created by students using a significant amount of their resources, even if the inventors are undergraduates like Zummo and Naples.

The question of whether the two students or R.P.I. owned their invention was a tricky one. They had first designed plastic bottles that snapped together, Lego style, with two other students for a freshman design class project that challenged them to solve a social problem. Their idea was to keep the billions of water bottles that people in developing nations throw away each year out of landfills while providing the poor with free building materials.

With entrepreneurship booming, especially in courses that mix M.B.A. candidates with budding physicians or engineers, more and younger students are coming up with ideas that have commercial potential. While formal programs offer classes in managing intellectual property, plenty of students develop their ideas with little knowledge of how ownership is determined or the pros and cons of involving the university.

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