Kansas AAUP pushing for stronger patent rights for faculty

A faculty group in Kansas is fighting for intellectual property rights on inventions that university employees create off campus.

The Kansas chapter of the American Association of University Professors is trying to persuade the Kansas Legislature that it’s in the state’s interest to ensure faculty retain the right to patent technology they develop on their own time.

Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a Kansas University professor of aerospace engineering and head of the Kansas AAUP chapter, said the university has every right to patent inventions that faculty create in the course of university research. The problem for him is that mandatory university contracts on intellectual property are binding through the entire year, including the summers, when many faculty leave.

His worry is that the agreement could potentially prevent faculty members from collaborating with companies that wouldn’t want to turn over patents to the university. That in turn could limit faculty knowledge and prevent state companies from benefiting from their expertise, Barrett-Gonzalez said. “It’s severing the link between faculty and industry.”

KU’s “employee invention assignment agreement” stipulates that any invention developed by an employee using KU’s “equipment, supplies, facilities, time, personnel or trade secrets” can become the “sole and exclusive property of the university.” Revenue from technology licensed by the university is shared among the employee who invented it, that person’s department and the university.

Barrett-Gonzalez said KU’s agreement, which was introduced to campus in 2008 and must be signed by new faculty and staff when completing the employment process, is “buried in a stack of papers” new employees must sign.

“It’s flat-out unethical,” he said.

A report from the national AAUP found the trend toward university control of intellectual property to be widespread through the country. Behind the trends is an administrative conviction that “faculty are not independent scholars, teachers, and researchers, but rather employees no different from those working in for-profit corporations that exist for the benefit of investors,” the report said.

Julie Goonewardene, president of KU Collaboration and Innovation, said she doesn’t know of any case where the invention agreement has prevented a faculty member from contracting with a company.

Goonewardene also said that even inventions created in an employee’s free time might have benefited from university resources by shaping someone’s expertise in a field. “It’s a little hard to understand how work they’re doing in the summer isn’t informed by what they’re doing year around” for the university, she said.

The KU engineering school’s Faculty Senate issued a vote last spring calling for the language in KU’s invention agreement to be rewritten. Currently the Kansas AAUP is taking the matter to the Legislature. Failing help there, Barrett-Gonzalez said the organization would look into taking the matter up in the courts.