When a graduate student, or PI does government funded (NSF/NIH/etc) research at a US R1 institution who owns the data?

What portion of the copyright for the research data does the graduate student have and what portion does the PI have? My understanding is that graduate students are supposed to be listed as co-inventors on resulting patents meaning that they should own some portion of the copyright? Can a graduate student deny a PI access on copyright grounds?

My interest comes from a debate we recently had between two PIs where one refused his copyright for our collaborative research results (some anonymized medical outcomes data). Apparently, PIs can refuse to their copyrights to each other, but can graduate students?

  • I think you are confusing copyright and patent. They are about very different things and have different rules, laws, and ethics. And, many such things are spelled out in grants and published agency policies. Data, if unpublished, could also be considered a trade-secret with yet another set of rules. – Buffy Jan 5 '20 at 23:55
  • Data isn't necessarily something that can be copyrighted at all. See for instance smallbusiness.chron.com/copyright-data-63070.html. – Nate Eldredge Jan 6 '20 at 0:48

No one.

The short answer is that “data” as the term is understood by US law is not covered by copyright, thus in popular parlance it is not “owned” by anyone. If you google “can data be copyrighted” you will find various articles explaining this in more detail. Here is one.

The longer answer is that, as seems to often be the case in matters of law, the legal meaning of “data” seems to differ slightly from how people use this word in normal speech. What academics might refer to as “research data” may also include aspects of what is referred to in some sources as “presentation” or “compilation” of data, and to the extent that this is the case, copyright might apply to it after all. In that case, the copyright would be owned by some combination of the PI, graduate students, the institution that employs them, and any funding agencies who might have funded some of the research, depending on the policies of the institution and funding agencies. For example, at my own university, researchers own the copyright to the work products they create.

I also notice you are mixing up copyright and patent rights by mentioning them together as if they were the same thing. They are not. Data is not a form of invention so I don’t see how patent rights would apply to it. But more generally, if a graduate student and PI come up with any patentable inventions, those would be subject to quite different rules and policies than those covering copyright. For example, at my own university, patent rights for researchers’ inventions will generally belong to the university, though the inventors can receive a share of any royalties generated from their inventions. As far as I know this applies equally to graduate students and regular faculty. But you should check the policy at your own institution.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

  • "researchers own the copyright " Does this mean the graduate student owns it or the PI? Or both? – Mikhail Jan 6 '20 at 1:21
  • @Buffy good point, I replaced that with a link from a US university. – Dan Romik Jan 6 '20 at 1:25
  • @Mikhail what is unclear about what I wrote? “Researchers” refers to all the people who participated in the creation of the copyrighted material. At my university this would include both faculty and graduate students, and I suspect that would be true almost everywhere but can’t say that with certainty. – Dan Romik Jan 6 '20 at 1:32
  • So can a graduate student deny a PI the right to publish the data the graduate student collected? This would be the case of the data was jointly owned. – Mikhail Jan 7 '20 at 2:03
  • @Mikhail my answer makes the point that “data” is not owned by anyone, so the answer to your question is “no”. But as for other copyrightable material, yes, anyone who is a co-owner of the copyrighted material, including a student, could technically deny any other co-owner (including a professor) the right to publish the material. What would actually happen in a situation where a student tried to exercise that legal right is anybody’s guess. I suspect it would not end pleasantly. – Dan Romik Jan 7 '20 at 2:09

Particularly when you are government funded (at least in the US), you are merely the data steward. If asked for your data, you are obliged to make every effort to share.

Inventions, IP, patents etc are different, and usually concern what the data means or how it can be used. Here you must engage with university legal counsel to reach an agreement because usually the institution owns your IP by default when the work leading to it was conducted while under employ.


For the NSF, specifically, see: https://www.nsf.gov/od/ogc/intelprop.jsp

For NIH, see: https://grants.nih.gov/policy/intell-property.htm

Each agency will have a published policy. Just go look for it. Or consult an IP lawyer.

But note that acknowledgement for something and ownership of it are quite different things.

  • 2
    Keep in mind that NSF and NIH grants are awarded to institutions rather than the individual PI and that institutional policies on intellectual property are usually in place. – Brian Borchers Jan 6 '20 at 1:02

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