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Our second semester group project is to bid for, develop, and attempt to "sell" a software solution. Local companies are the customer that provide the brief, and that we attempt to "sell" to.

I was under the impression until recently these were dummy projects, something the company already has so that our projects can be compared to their own as an additional method of measuring how well we did.

However, it turns out this is not the case, with one project going as far to say in the brief;

"CompanyX would be interesting in commercialising any suitable finished products, or projects that could easily be finished to industry standards."

So essentially we're required to work for free. Is this legal (in the UK)? I've heard a bit about anything created for Uni work being the Uni's IP, does that come into this at all?

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    Actually, you are "working" for university credit, nothing more. That is the case whether anyone wants it or not. But the ideas you "develop" won't be a "product" though, with additional effort, might become one. Who "owns" the IP and such depends on your local law and regulations. Some universities have patent offices that exploit the work of staff and students. Some help staff and students exploit the work on their own behalf. It is unlikely you will hit "industry standards" in any case. You also get some exposure at those companies. A plus. – Buffy Nov 19 '18 at 21:30
  • @Buffy Myself and another member of our team are older students, that have worked in paid positions, and have built solutions similar to the briefs we have received. I think it is entirely possible that we could take some of these projects and deliver them to standard. We would just like to know where we stand if we did. – lightbulbmig Nov 20 '18 at 11:47
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This question splits into a few parts.

First, are there malicious arrangements where people abuse students as labor?

Yes, there are. and this fear seems to be motivating what you are writing here.

There can be and have been instances where professors collude with companies to use their students' code or other forms of labor with the only compensation being credits. Chinese graduate students often described such things to me when they were in the US (particularly when they had advisors who also spoke Chinese and threatened their visa status and continued education to get them to cooperate).

Second, is this arrangement (the one you describe in the question). such a malicious arrangement?

That's not completely clear, but the answer is probably no. (1) there's nothing per se wrong with having your projects be used or evaluated by companies. If anything that's a great opportunity for real world exposure. (2) you can ask the professor in charge or speak with the IP office at your university and see if all of this is happening in accordance with UK law. Assuming you're not being forced to abandon your rights to take the class, there's no obvious abuse here. Presumably, you can even refuse to sell / grant rights even if a company is interested.

tl;dr - the mere fact companies will consider what you produce is not enough to constitute abuse.

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Don't automatically assume malice. The statement doesn't say that CompanyX isn't paying for the product. In fact if you own the intellectual property (if you created it, there's a good chance you do; if not then at least your university/professor owns it) then you can reasonably demand CompanyX pay royalties.

Viewed from this perspective, this is not only legal, it's advantageous to both parties. You get to apply what you learned to a real-life scenario, which are usually more complicated than textbook scenarios. If you make something successful, then you're 1) able to state that on your CV, 2) CompanyX might be interested in hiring you, 3) you might derive royalties from it. Meanwhile CompanyX is able to talent scout and potentially find a solution to one of their problems.

  • I don't know about the UK, but in the US anything created by undergraduate students is generally automatically their intellectual property unless they've signed that away. – David Nov 20 '18 at 5:12
  • @David I've been looking through the Universities IP policy, and all I've found so far is: "The general principle is that Intellectual Property created by a student during the course of their studies belong to the student. There are circumstances where the University will own the Intellectual Property in a student’s work and the University may require a student to assign their Intellectual Property to the University (or a third party)" The 'more information' section is a mess of broken links and out of date references, Going to track down where I need to go to find out in the next few days. – lightbulbmig Nov 20 '18 at 11:50
  • @lightbulbmig Under US law you have certain protections and rights automatically. If you create a piece of software then you automatically have copyright control over your work. The two major exceptions are if you have (1) voluntarily signed away these protections in a contract or (2) you are employed to create the software for someone else. In this second case the work is automatically considered a "Work For Hire." However, this second case only applies when there is an actual bona fide employer/employee relationship, not necessarily if you're a private contractor. – David Nov 21 '18 at 4:59

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