Guide to Intellectual Property as a Student at the University of California

Frequently Asked Questions

I have more questions. How do I know whom to call?

If you are confused about your IP obligations or have general questions about IP, your campus technology transfer office is available to assist you. You can find contact information for your campus here.

What is "intellectual property"?

Intellectual property (IP) generally is thought of as intangible creations of the mind, which may be protected under patent, trademark and/or copyright laws. These laws offer protection that can be used to prevent others from the unauthorized production, copying, use or sale of the IP. You can learn more about intellectual property in this University of California presentation.

What should I do before inventing something?

Keep good records that document your creative progress. Understand your IP obligations, and direct questions to your campus technology transfer office (TTO). If you are employed by the University, you must report your invention to the campus TTO.

Who is considered an inventor on a patent?

Inventorship is a matter of law. Anyone who intellectually contributed to the conception of an inventive idea must be included as an inventor. Someone who merely carried out the inventor's instructions during the reduction to practice stage, or acted only as a pair of hands, does not qualify as an inventor. In case of doubt, the patent attorney who prepares the application is the one who will assist with determining inventorship.

What does UC do with an invention?

When the University owns an invention, the campus can commit resources to protect it by filing a patent application. UC then manages the patent and tries to find an industry partner who will further develop it into goods or services that ultimately benefit the public. If successful, UC shares royalties with inventors. Some inventors also consider a startup company as an alternative.

What are my next steps if I own my invention?

If you’ve invented something outside UC employment - and without using UC research facilities, resources, or funds - then you own your IP! However, if University employees are co-inventors, the University is likely to have an ownership interest in the invention. If you have questions about what can be done by UC with your IP, your campus TTO might have resources available for guidance.

What if I invent something while I’m supported by financial aid?

Different types of financial aid, fellowships, and scholarly experiences are available to students during their educational experience. Some types (federal work-study, NSF REU, various fellowships) may include certain IP obligations. If your original IP does not incorporate the use of University funding, resources, or research facilities, and was not created in the course of employment, it may be that you own your IP.

I am employed part-time at a company and part-time under my professor’s University project. How do I know who owns the invention I created?

When you make an invention while conducting research for the University, the University may own that invention if you (1) were employed by the University and signed the Patent Acknowledgment, or (2) used University research funds, resources or facilities. If you are unsure whether the University could have an ownership interest, please contact your campus TTO for clarification.

When would I have to sign the Patent Acknowledgment?

As a condition of employment, UC employees are required to sign the Patent Acknowledgment obligating them to report inventions, assign ownership of inventions to the University, and assist with patent prosecution. Students are generally not required to sign this form, however, using University research facilities or funding may trigger this. Please consult your campus TTO for questions regarding this form.

How do I know if I’ve used University research facilities or resources?

If you are unclear about whether University research facilities or resources were involved in the creation of your IP, please contact your faculty mentor(s) or department administrator to identify the appropriate campus office for consultation.

Who owns the short motion picture I created in my film class?

At UC, students generally own the copyrights of their creative works. The exception would be student-created works that are produced while employed by the University, or that are sponsored or commissioned, which may fall under the UC Copyright Ownership Policy.

How do I know if I’ve infringed someone else’s IP?

Intellectual property is protected by patent, copyright and/or trademark law, and it is often (but not always!) marked as protected. For example, if you see the ® symbol next to a logo, you know that logo is protected as a registered trademark. If you are using a patented invention, you may have seen a document notifying you of patent protection. Students should be aware of registered University trademarks such as University logos or slogans, and the fact that permission is usually required for their use.

Copyright protection arises automatically the moment an original work is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression." In other words, the moment that text is written down or typed, the copyright on that text is protected. In preparing a dissertation or thesis, students may have incorporated copyrighted work owned by others into their work. In such cases, either the use of third-party content must be allowable under an exemption like fair use, or permission must be granted to use the material. The UC Copyright website provides more information on copyright use and creation.

Plagiarism is a different issue, and all University employees and students are expected to act in accordance with applicable codes of conduct. Please consult your campus academic integrity contact or student affairs office as appropriate regarding questions related to academic integrity.

I am using University data and/or materials in my research. How do I know if they are protected IP?

Data, information and tangible materials are not generally protected by copyright. If you are unsure whether they are subject to other obligations, or whether a material is protected by patent, consult your campus TTO for clarification.

What should I do if I’m asked to sign an agreement to keep something confidential?

If a company wishes to share confidential information or trade secrets with you for the purpose of a research project, the company and UC typically execute a Confidentiality Agreement (also called a Nondisclosure Agreement or Secrecy Agreement). It is extremely important for you to be aware of confidential information or trade secrets entrusted to you or the University. Such information should only be used for the authorized purpose and care should be taken to respect the confidential nature of the information. If you are asked to sign an agreement that obligates you to keep something confidential, please consult your faculty mentor(s) and/or the campus TTO as soon as possible.

What if I’ve invented something while completing my capstone project?

Many UC campuses offer capstone courses or programs to enhance your learning experience and provide hands-on skills development. These are valuable opportunities in which students can participate in inquiry-based and creative projects often resulting in tangible final products like films, ocean research vessels, and model robotics. Absent other circumstances or obligations, you will probably own the IP made in your capstone project. However, these exciting projects can have added complexity, for example, when a company is involved. Consult your capstone professor and/or your campus TTO as appropriate if you have specific questions regarding your capstone IP.