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September 25, 2014

IP form deadline delayed

At the urging of Faculty Assembly, Provost Patricia E. Beeson has suspended a requirement that faculty sign a blanket intellectual property (IP) rights assignment agreement in order to proceed with grant applications.

In a Sept. 12 memo to Faculty Assembly communicated via University Senate President Michael Spring, Beeson announced that she would delay the Sept. 16 deadline for signing the IP assignment agreement and instead convene a task force to make recommendations “for implementing a process consistent with our existing policy on Intellectual Property and in light of current expectations of funding agencies.”

The memo went on to state: “While this taskforce deliberates, the process of grant submission will go forward as in the past.”

Following spirited debate in its Sept. 9 meeting, a divided Faculty Assembly approved a tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC) resolution that urged the provost to push back the Sept. 16 deadline for faculty and non-clerical staff to sign the agreement to assign to the University IP rights for all work done while employed at Pitt.

TAFC had questioned a lack of faculty input in developing the policy, as well as the administration’s assertion that the mandate reflected federal requirements as a condition for grant funding.

At issue was an IP rights assignment agreement, dated July 1, that some faculty felt represented no change to longstanding IP policy, but others argued was a shift from assigning IP rights as invention disclosures were made to a blanket transfer of rights to all IP created during an individual’s employment at the University.

The changes stem from a 2011 Supreme Court decision, Stanford v. Roche. (See Sept. 11 University Times.)

The Senate has posted relevant documents online at


The task force, which initially met last week and was scheduled to meet again this week, includes representatives of Faculty Assembly, including TAFC members, and other researchers from throughout the University community.

The group was given a Sept. 30 deadline to make recommendations.

Ken Service, vice chancellor for communications, told the University Times that the provost intends to move quickly on revising the IP assignment agreement after receiving the task force’s input.

Spring, a task force appointee, said the group is dealing narrowly with the issue of how the University handles the assignment of IP discoveries, not with Pitt’s IP policies themselves, which have been in place for more than a decade.

Spring maintained his opinion that the IP assignment agreement does not alter existing University policy. “This is about avoiding a situation in which a faculty member inadvertently and unintentionally assigned IP away to a company,” he said, acknowledging that there is disagreement about Stanford v. Roche.

“If we were committing to something new or taking away something we’d agreed to, I would be more concerned,” Spring said, acknowledging that the wording of the IP rights assignment, intended to be brief, instead was perceived by some as terse and complicated by standard legal wording that some faculty found off-putting. With a careful reading, “It’s really pretty vanilla,” he said.

Spring said opinions around the table diverged at the task force’s initial meeting last week. “I believe she listened to every faculty member around the room,” Spring said of the provost. “I think that she is listening very carefully.” He was optimistic that the issues can be resolved.

Spring added that the separate issue of University IP policy itself is one that the Pitt administration has expressed interest in reviewing, with an eye toward facilitating innovation.

“If we’re going to disseminate knowledge as we should … it may be that our current policy is not optimally aligned to meet these goals,” he said, adding that a Senate-administration joint committee is being discussed and could be formed this year.

Such a policy review could take as much as a year or more, Spring said.

“The broader issue will involve collecting a lot of data. That just takes time.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 3