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Alice developed a technology and the development of the tech was funded by her ex-advisor. No user study has been done yet and there is no publication in the picture. Only the tech has been developed so far, which is entirely Alice's code. Recently Alice changed her advisor. Ex-advisor is not allowing Alice to use the tech as part of her dissertation. What do you suggest Alice should do here? Do you think the ex-advisor has the right to stop Alice from using the tech despite Alice developing it entirely on her own?

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    Was the funding through a grant and if so, what type? That is, government agency, industry, etc.
    – mkennedy
    Jul 7 at 19:16
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    Sorry I should have mentioned this. The grant was through a university-funded center for research on a certain demographic. The grant was not specific to this technology and was meant for an entirely different technology. There was some fund left to fund this tech as well that I developed.
    – PB09
    Jul 7 at 19:41
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    It may be that "Alice" signed away all IP to the university.
    – Buffy
    Jul 7 at 20:34
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    Did Alice change institutions? Does the new advisor know about this, and if so, what do they say?
    – cag51
    Jul 7 at 22:18
  • Alice did not change institution or the department. Alice only changed advisor. New advisor is not too keen on going into conflict but realizes it is an important part of Alice's dissertation.
    – PB09
    Jul 7 at 23:30

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It doesn't matter if a grant was for a specific thing, if Alice was paid on that grant then she did not develop anything entirely on her own, she developed something with support from the grant. Even if Alice wrote all the actual code, if the previous advisor gave guidance and direction in any way they may have some partial claim on the product. Who specifically owns the work depends entirely on the terms of that grant/Alice's employment, and possibly also the laws that pertain to Alice and her institution: it might be Alice, it might be shared between Alice and her ex-advisor, it might be the university, it might be the government/granting agency.

However, the issue of "not allowing Alice to use the tech as part of her dissertation" seems to entirely be a department/graduate program issue. Primarily, I would recommend Alice see what the advice of her current/new supervisor is on this issue. Is this work necessary for Alice to graduate? Is her other work sufficient without it? What is the position of other people who decide whether Alice graduates, like members of a thesis committee? It may be necessary to escalate things to department/graduate school leadership to put pressure or make a decision, but hopefully even before it gets there some agreement can be arranged between Alice and her advisors.

It's pretty important to know what the ex-advisor's motivations are; some of those motivations, like some sort of revenge, are clearly unethical. Other motivations may be more reasonable - if disclosure of this technology in a dissertation will imperil a patent, for example, it may be in both the advisor and Alice's best interests to move forward with patent protection in mind. It's not clear from the question whether that's the case.

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  • Thank you so much for the response. Ex-advisor's motivation is purely revenge. There is no patent issue. This work is a necessary part of Alice's dissertation. When it comes to intellectual property, do you think this tech can be considered Alice's intellectual property?
    – PB09
    Jul 7 at 23:21
  • @Puja Even if there's no patent issue, I'd be cautious in leaping to "pure revenge" as a motive. "Intellectual property" is an umbrella term for a collection of legal concepts, so whether it's "Alice's IP" depends very much on whose laws Alice's work is governed by, and bunch of other specifics. That said, I highly doubt this work is solely Alice's property.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 7 at 23:55
  • When I was completing my masters, I had to move out of the lab I had been in and lost access to the compiler I needed for my project. I rewrote the code from scratch using a compiler I did have access to. Turned out the code was better, and more versatile and helped with my thesis. YMMV.
    – Peter K.
    Jul 8 at 1:43
  • @Puja As per Bryan's answer, that depends on the terms of the grant/Alice's employment. But I would be surprised if funded work came without conditions on the IP generated in that work. Jul 8 at 6:57
  • Thank you everyone for your responses. There is also another perspective on this and I shared it here - academia.stackexchange.com/questions/186809/…. I would really appreciate if you can share your thoughts on this. Thanks once again. Please note, I have changed my display name from Puja to PB09.
    – PB09
    Jul 10 at 0:29

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