To whom does an original idea belong? The answer seems obvious, but when the person who comes up with an idea for something new a device, a procedure, a product is a state university faculty member, the university gets first dibs.
The University of Utah Board of Regents, rightly recognizing the importance of such ownership to the university and the Utah taxpayers who support it, have changed the rules to make possession of ideas that result in valuable inventions more clear. The changes should be good for everyone involved.
Disputes can arise when a professor or researcher employed at the university also works for a private company, as was the situation in a recent U.S. Supreme Court case that was eventually decided in the company's favor.
A professor created a test to measure the amount of HIV in a patient's blood while conducting research at a drug company, according to The New York Times. The test is now used in many hospitals and clinics. The university sued, saying the professor's ideas belonged to the school by contract, but the Supreme Court said the company's contract was more precise.
To avoid similar problems, the regents have clarified and strengthened the contracts the U. signs with faculty who are devising new products and procedures, particularly in medicine. The new policy states that inventions made within a faculty member's area of expertise belong to the school whether or not they are conceived on university property. It also gives faculty members a greater share of the profits made from their ideas, bumping their potential take to 40 percent of the first $100,000 in royalties, rather than the first $20,000.
Inventions developed outside the faculty member's specialty field are not covered by the policy.
The new rules apply to both faculty and student inventions that are created using university resources.
The seemingly arcane policy is important to the Beehive State and its residents. The University of Utah and its research are a major economic driver for the state. Licensing of patents and technology developed at the university brought in about $37 million in revenue in 2011, according to the Association of University Technology Managers.
The regents' action will help keep top-notch researchers at the U. since they will have a greater potential for high earnings. And clarifying the rules should help the state avoid future disputes and court cases over ownership of ideas and inventions.