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Doing some research for an entrepreneurship class. We are building an email classifier for a logistics company to automate part of their customer service process. We are having some discussion on how to properly license this technology, and whether it should be hosted on the cloud or on their internal servers.

Specifically, my questions are:

1) Who actually owns the rights to the trained machine learning classifier output by the machine learning algorithm?

2) Since the company itself owns the data, can they claim rights to the output?

3) If the service is hosted on their servers, is there any way to protect against them hacking the classifier and re-deploying it themselves?

  • Depends a lot on how the transaction is structured contractually. – ohwilleke Oct 15 '18 at 18:37
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The Wikipedia article on Threshold of Originality has a section on stuff that machines produce, and it appears that, at least in the US, this would probably not be original enough to be copyrightable. Consult a local lawyer of the appropriate specialty if you want a more definite answer. The only other category of IP that's applicable would be trade secrets, and for that to apply you'd have to keep control of the output and not show it to others.

In the US, anyway, data usually belongs to whoever gathered it, but owning data doesn't mean owning something generated from it.

I assume that there's a generic engine and that the classifier output is what's important here. If it's not copyrightable, then there's nothing stopping anyone with access to it from copying, using, or redistributing it. If you show it to the company without an NDA in place, it won't be a trade secret. If you want to make a profit from it, consider charging for it up front.

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Your title asks the right question first. Before discussing who owns Intellectual Property rights, we should first establish which rights that would be.

There are a few different types of Intellectual Property. Chiefly, those are patents, design patents, trademarks, and copyright. We can quickly dismiss patents and design patents - they exist only after registration, and you would know about that.

It's also clear that the model itself is not a trademark. You may invent a trademark for the model and do business using that trademark, but that trademark would only name the model.

Finally, there's copyright. That requires creative activity at least. But is the ML model the result of creative activity, or is the model created by a mathematical procedure (Stochastic Gradient Descent)? This is not obvious. You probably have some input in pre-selecting the data, but it's likely that the training algorithm had the final decision in weighing all inputs. Reasonable people may have different opinions here. My personal view is that the process is almost fully automated, and therefore not creative.

  • Could it be a "trade secret"? – D M Mar 18 '18 at 19:01
  • @DM: That's possible. The challenges would be to define the extent of that trade secret, and the owner of the secret. But if argued contractually and up front that it is a trade secret, owned by the students, then this logistics company would have a problem denying that later. Note that a trade secret does not protect against independent re-discovery. – MSalters Mar 18 '18 at 20:49
  • to be precise - "patent" encompasses "design patent"; patents are not "registered" they are applied for and it is possible that the application is not visible to the public until a patent is granted and issued. That is usually years after the application is filed, so, no you would not necessarily know that patent rights were in the process of being claimed. The creativity requirement for a copyrighted work is a very minimal requirement. – George White Nov 13 '18 at 20:44

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