I am working on a device which is in the prototyping stages. We may at some point decide that we have proven the concept of the device, and then we would need to sort out intellectual property. I am trying to determine who or what owns this device, and whether I would receive any part of future royalties.

I was studying X as part of my PhD thesis work. I showed X to a visiting colleague and he suggested that X could be turned into a device with a specific and useful purpose. I am a graduate student at a university. We sent a proposal to a government institution requesting funding to prototype this device. The proposal was shot down, but they did provide useful feedback regarding what they would like to see proven to verify that the device would work.

I am now working as an intern at another government institution which has good facilities and people for building devices. We are building a prototype of the device in order to test the concerns the previous government institution had. The place I am working is providing some funding for materials.

Assuming the tests go correctly, we will apply for a large grant from a 3rd government institution.

So I finally mentioned all parties, and I am would like to know who will own the intellectual property of this device (or will it be split). Will it by my school? The colleague who proposed the device? The first, second, or third government institution? My Adviser? Anyone and everyone who contributed in some part? Or finally, can I get a piece of the action myself?

All of this took place in the United States

2 Answers 2


The short answer (this was supposed to be short) is that it depends on what you agreed to (usually, implicitly), which is mostly about your university and employers. Some universities are rather aggressive about asserting ownership of patent rights for things invented by their employees, which may include faculty and students. There will be a policy statement whereby the university asserts ownership of the patent (which may or may not involve revenue-sharing). A place that I know of kicks back 1/3 of the profits to the inventor. A crucial consideration is the extent to which the invention is a product of what you were paid to do at the university. For instance, if you were hired to invent a process for turning lead into gold and you do invent such a process, then they may simply own the invention and you own the salary that you got. If you worked as a French TA and invented this process on your own, using your own stuff, then the university has no claim to your inventions. There are a lot of points in between those extremes. There may be special rules for students (my former employer is more hands-off for student inventions compared to faculty inventions). The implicit agreement arises from you accepting employment from the university, them informing you that there is a patent policy that you need to read (institutions can be variable in the extent to which they actually force you to click "I agree").

A university cannot own an idea that you got while working for them -- ideas can't be owned -- so until there is an actual patentable thing, there's nothing to own. However, once you have a thing, the university might actively assert an ownership interest in that thing, resulting in a claim against patent revenues, even if you only got half-way there while at the university. I would expect that if an employee gets 90% finished with an invention then leaves for greener pastures, once that last 10% is completed, the former employer will aggressively go after their 90% interest in the invention.


No one

There is no IP in ideas.

You could have applied for a patent if and when you have a working invention. However, since you have revealed the existence of the device you have probably lost the required novelty to obtain a patent. The item is not novel if it is already in the wild even if it was the inventor's actions that put it there.

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