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March 3, 2016

Work continues on patent, copyright, COI policies

New patent, copyright and conflict of interest policies could be in place at Pitt by the end of summer, said Vice Provost for Research Mark Redfern, head of a provost’s committee that has been working since September on revising policies in ways that will make it easier for University innovators to partner externally and translate their research in beneficial ways.

Now the time has come for committee members to solidify the issues and begin writing initial drafts, keeping in mind that the intertwining policies must coordinate.

The University Research Council, the Council of Deans and the University Senate must review the policies, which ultimately need the provost’s and chancellor’s approval.

“The committee is taking its work very, very seriously,” said Redfern. “We’ve received a ton of input from lots of different places, which is really good.” They’ve benchmarked other policies, received input from outside sources and solicited comments from faculty, staff and students through direct email, surveys and, most recently, town hall meetings.

A pair of town hall sessions on campus in February drew 60-70 attendees each, said Redfern. Participants offered specific suggestions for policy changes, recounted their personal stories of how current policies had affected them, and shared their overarching philosophies on how the University should contribute to the public good, he said.

While the committee is digging into the issues to reach consensus on the new policies, there’s still time to offer input, Redfern said. Surveys remain open at

The committee aims to begin moving drafts of the new policies through the shared governance review by the end of April, said Redfern.

“I don’t know how much discussion there’s going to have to be on the key issues, but if members fall into consensus quickly it may move faster,” Redfern said.

An initial April 1 target date turned out to be overly optimistic, he said. The goal is still to have the new policies approved by the end of summer.

Regardless, the committee will not be rushed, Redfern said. “If it takes more time, it takes more time. But we’re going to get it right.”

Relatedly, Dennis Curran, distinguished service professor and Bayer Professor of Chemistry, was an invited guest at the University Senate research committee’s Feb. 26 session.

He elaborated on the concepts included in a co-authored letter to the editor that appeared in the Feb. 18 University Times and touted the competitive benefit to developing scholar-friendly intellectual property (IP) policies.

Curran, who has experience in launching a business and licensing patents, and whose research has resulted in dozens of patents and hundreds of publications, favors allowing innovators to decide whether to publish or file invention disclosures when IP is created, rather than assigning ownership to the University in advance. “Everything flows from who owns what,” he said. “Ownership is control. Not just who owns intellectual property, but at what time do people own it.”

He argued that retaining the right to IP doesn’t preclude a scholar from giving the University ownership at the time of an invention disclosure. “It’s the principle: Who is controlling my research?”

As an advocate for scholars’ right to own the IP they create, he urged the Senate committee to treat any review of the updated policies as a negotiation. “If this is a really bad policy, reject it,” he said.

“This is an incredibly important decision for the future of this University,” Curran said, adding that the IP policies the University creates will make a statement about Pitt and its values.

He suggested that both the research committee and the Senate tenure and academic freedom committee review any proposed policy changes. “I think there are academic freedom issues involved in ownership as well,” he said.

Curran argued that a scholar-friendly IP policy would create a strong competitive advantage in hiring faculty.

“More important than ironclad ownership of IP is the University’s relationship with its inventors,” he said, positing that a scholar-friendly policy would engender faculty cooperation and attract both seasoned inventors and young innovators alike.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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