After two years, questions remain on proposed intellectual property policy


Members of Faculty Assembly still have some concerns about the language in a proposed update to Pitt’s intellectual property policy.

At the Aug. 5 meeting, several assembly members said that some language in the policy was unclear or not specific enough. Others said they had additional concerns with the process in which the proposed policy was developed.

Interim language in the intellectual property policy, which has been in a revision process since 2018, was approved at the July Faculty Assembly meeting with a 67-3 vote to deal with issues raised because of online courses.

The intellectual property policy was developed by a committee consisting of faculty and staff, then was discussed in the Research committee.

Bonneau said he was happy to see that this policy, which was among the first issues he tackled as Senate president, had made it this far in the process.

Penelope Morel, co-chair of the Research committee, pushed back on criticism that the creation of the proposed policy was rushed, saying that process has been “well thought out and debated.”

The proposed policy, she said, combines elements of Pitt’s previous copyright policy with the intellectual policy into one document.

The idea was to create a policy that was accessible, more succinct and clear, and outlines who owns intellectual property or scholarly work, she said.

Additionally, the redistribution proceeds from intellectual property contracts and license agreements have been renegotiated to be more “generous” to inventors.

A guidelines document with an extensive Q&A section also will be included with the policy to help address specific scenarios that may appear. The document hasn’t been created yet and is waiting for the draft policy to be approved.

Pat Smolinski, a co-chair of the Research committee, added that the committee compared the draft policy to several other universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Northwestern. The draft was similar to policies at the other universities, he said.

Juan Taboas, a co-chair of the Senate Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs committee, praised the draft policy for its various changes. However, he and other assembly members said they were concerned that the policy gives the University too broad a license to faculty coursework materials.

On Aug. 4, Tyler Bickford, co-chair of the Budget Policies committee, sent an email out to committee members saying that the pandemic has created an environment where faculty are required to make all course materials, including recordings of lectures, available online. This could create the possibility of the University unethically monetizing course materials, he and other members said.

Evan Facher, vice chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and director of the Innovation Institute, said the University doesn’t own course materials and cannot license it out to a third party for monetization, or “sublicensing” it. 

Maria Kovacs, co-chair of the Tenure and Academic Freedom committee, said that another issue that should be taken up is the grievance process for intellectual property.

In the draft, faculty who have a grievance with an intellectual property decision can appeal to the office of Senior Vice Chancellor for Research Rob Rutenbar for final approval. Kovacs suggested that a backup process, similar to the traditional faculty grievance process, should be available.

“You’re the big boss,” Kovacs said to Rutenbar. “And if somebody disagrees with something that you’ve decided, in all due respect, there is no other option. There is nowhere for them to go. All I’m asking is that this grievance process should reflect the same flexibility that we had the other grievance processes, which is that it doesn’t stop at the boss’ desk, especially if the grievance has to do with a decision that the boss made.”

For the next steps of the policy, Bonneau said that there “is a lot of good in this policy that we don’t want to lose.”

He suggested that Rutenbar, Facher and Morel meet with the Faculty Affairs committee to adjust the language in the draft policy to address the concerns raised in this meeting.

By October, he said he’d hope that the concerns be addressed in a new draft that could then be up for approval.

In his report to Faculty Assembly, Bonneau said the implementation process of the new conflict of interest policy was temporarily delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rutenbar updated and streamlined the conflict of interest policy with an online disclosure portal.

Bonneau said that on the first day of the portal being sent out to the Pitt community, 83 percent of the people required to disclose participated. Overall compliance is at 86 percent, and the Office of Research is following up with the other 14 percent.

Roughly 10,000 people had nothing to disclose, and 6,500 supervisor disclosures are being processed. Rutenbar said the participation percentage was amazing.

Bonneau said he was pleased with the process so far, and that it ultimately benefits members of the Pitt community.

“By disclosing conflicts early, we can avoid many of the situations we see in the media about faculty being terminated or prosecuted, which is almost exclusively what happens to people who hide their conflicts,” Bonneau said.

Award for service

Robin Kear, former Senate Council vice president, received the seventh award for service in the University Senate.

Kear, who has been with Pitt since 2007, served as vice president from 2016 to 2019. She was also an elected Faculty Assembly member and Senate Council representative from 2010 to 2016.

“Robin has been a tireless advocate for students and faculty, especially those whose employment is contingent,” Bonneau said. “Personally, she was a fantastic resource for me during my first year as president, and I relied heavily on her counsel and insight.”

Computing committee report

Michael Spring, chair of the University Senate’s Computing and Information Technology Committee, said that Pitt IT has done a great job maintaining Pitt’s information technology infrastructure despite various challenges stemming from the pandemic.

“I think that given the stresses put on the Information Technology Infrastructure this year, significant failures could have occurred,” Spring said. “And the fact that they didn’t, I think, is an important point to mention.”

Spring said that the real test will begin once classes start this fall. He said that he anticipates that there will be an “aggregation of small problems and not a catastrophic failure.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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