I'm an undergraduate researcher. I wrote a script to solve a problem when I was working on our previous research project. I was unpaid at the time.

Now I am paid for my research and am updating my script (so that it runs better and is more easily accessible to my research group and easier for them to maintain when I leave.)

Who owns my code? Me or the school? Does it matter that I was unpaid (essentially doing the research for fun) at the time I initially wrote the code?

I'm fine with my research group using it in the future, but I want to be able to use it in the future as well when I move onto graduate school.

My current plan is to really build on it and make a really nice suite that would be applicable to both what we're doing now and what I would like to be doing in grad school, but I don't want to do it if I'm going to run into legal hot water.

  • 7
    What does it say in your university policy? What does it say in your contract? That's the only definitive answer.
    – ff524
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:20
  • I couldn't find my university's policy. :( There is no verbage in my contract in regard to intellectual property. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:27
  • 2
    If there isn't anything in university policy or the contract, I'd ask your advisor. Usually code falls under copyright provisions, so that means you (the exclusive author) picks the license. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:28
  • 1
    I'd also talk to your advisor / supervisor. Usually they'd want (and deserve) a copy of the code, but have no problem if you want to take the code and continue to improve it later. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:29
  • 8
    This policy seems to say Purdue owns any code you write as an employee (since it doesn't fall under the instructional or scholarly exceptions). But I'd recommend not looking into this too closely: if you get university lawyers involved, they will worry that your interest in this question might be because the code is valuable, which will make them reluctant to part with it. Instead, I'd ask your supervisor whether you can release it under a permissive license (so you and others can use it), and then do so. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 4:34

1 Answer 1


As noted in the comments, this really depends on university employment policy. It is further complicated by the fact that you were a student but not an employee when you did the first work, and so different policies might apply. If you wanted to commercialize the software yourself, you'd probably need to get lawyers involved and everything would likely become complicated and sticky.

Given that your stated goal is to be free to work with the software in the future, however, the easiest path is probably to simply nullify the question by getting the software released under a free and open software license. This is typically quite easy to do with early-stage academic software, and (de facto) usually just requires consent from your professor. This is a win-win solution: you and the university both get credit for the software (no matter who owns it, your authorship is never in doubt), and you and everyone else in the world gets to make use of it and improve it, no matter where you may go in the future.


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