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Kansas professors challenge university policy over who holds patent rights

By David Schwartz
Published: February 26th, 2014

The president of the Kansas conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) hopes to see state legislation passed that would remove what he claims are barriers that prevent cooperation between academic researchers and the private sector. Ron Barrett-Gonzalez is an associate professor at the University of Kansas (KU) School of Engineering, where he and his colleagues are required – like most university faculty — to sign over their inventions to the university if the work was done for KU, is related to KU’s research, or was conducted using KU resources.

“It’s only right that the university has some claims,” Barrett-Gonzalez says, yet he argues that policies like this hamper academics who want to work for companies in the summer, and that, in the long run, such policies are against the state’s economic interests.

Last spring, the faculty senate at the KU School of Engineering, with over 130 faculty members, passed a resolution asking the university to cut out these agreements from employee contracts — both new and existing ones — and to allow faculty researchers to work privately in the summer without worry over any IP created. Gonzalez points out that researchers aren’t working for KU in the summer, and that while they still receive university benefits, faculty members end up paying for those during the academic year.

But according to Julie Goonewardene, president of KU Innovation and Collaboration (KUIC), the agreements help the university bring the fruits of academic research to the public through patenting and licensing, and can help safeguard faculty rights. “The last thing I want to do is prohibit the faculty’s ability to engage with industry,” she says. “But I want them engaged with industry in a way that’s fully informed.” She points out that companies seeking control of IP sometimes leave researchers with a raw deal, providing only a relatively small consulting fee while gaining control of intellectual property worth much more.

Goonewardene notes that KUIC reported 37 patents issued in fiscal 2013, an increase from 16 two years ago, while annual gross revenues rose from under $2 million to nearly $12 million. “There’s a balance here in my mind,” comments Goonewardene. “You have the university making remarkable investments that enable these discoveries.” Nevertheless, she adds, KUIC is working with a committee of faculty members to review the agreements.

On a national level, AAUP published a report last fall describing a “sea change” in employment conditions for faculty, noting that in wake of the Stanford v Roche Supreme Court decision more universities are requiring researchers to sign over all rights to IP they develop.


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