Tech-savvy students prompt colleges to revamp rules

Students who make iPhone apps could face college officials demanding ownership.

Tony Brown didn’t set out to overhaul his college’s policies on intellectual property. He just wanted an easier way of tracking local apartment rentals on his iPhone.

The University of Missouri student came up with an idea in class one day that spawned an iPhone application that has had more than 250,000 downloads since its release in March 2009.

The app created by Brown and three other undergraduates won them a trip to Apple headquarters, along with job offers from Google and other technology companies.

But the invention also raised a perplexing question when university lawyers abruptly demanded a 25-percent ownership stake and two-thirds of any profits: Who owns the patents and copyrights when a student creates something of value on campus, without a professor’s help?

“We were incredibly surprised, and intimidated at the same time,” Brown said. “You’re facing an institution hundreds of years older than you, and with thousands more people. It was almost like there were no other options than to give in.”

The issue has been cropping up on campuses across the nation, spurred by the boom in computer software in which teenagers tinkering in dorm rooms are coming up with products that rival the work of professional engineers.

Universities have had longstanding technology transfer rules for inventions by faculty, generally asserting partial ownerships rights to technology created with university resources that have commercial potential. For students, though, technology transfer policies often were vague, because cases didn’t come up very often.