I am a graduate student of university A, and I'm going to do an internship in a lab in university B.

I used an internship contract from my originating university A, which stipulates that university B can make a contract on a case-by-case basis to later exploit my work made during my internship. However, university B asks me to change this clause to transfer all intellectual property rights to university B exclusively, meaning that I won't be able to use it aftewards without approval from university B. Note that I am not paid by university B, nor having any other compensation for the whole duration of my internship there from university B, and I'm not hosted on-campus either, but I will get academic credits from university A.

Is this a common practice for lab internships? Can I do something about it? (I don't mind giving all the rights to exploit my work, but I would also like to be able to use it myself, particularly softwares I will develop).

/Final update: Thank you all for your great feedback. The issue was resolved quite simply by agreeing with my supervisor to put the developped softwares under an opensource licence. The contract thus won't have any impact whatsoever.

  • 11
    Repeat after me: NO.
    – JeffE
    Dec 23, 2015 at 0:21
  • 2
    @JeffE : No about what? Is this not common, or can I do nothing about it?
    – gaborous
    Dec 23, 2015 at 11:19
  • 1
    I think he meant that you should say "no" to such a contract. I don't see how university B has any right to your work - they aren't paying for you, nor do you receive any other compensation. What exactly does university B provide then?
    – Olorun
    Dec 23, 2015 at 11:24
  • 3
    @Olorun They provide an opportunity to work in a lab that is on the state-of-the-art in the domain I seek to pursue my academic career. I think they're playing on their competitivity, but I'm not sure that's fair...
    – gaborous
    Dec 23, 2015 at 11:25
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    The world is full of unpleasant people who take every chance to exploit those around them as hard as they can. Offer a version which would give them the right to use your work however they wish but allows you to use your work as well. It's all they should need. You might still choose to sign but it lets you know that they're taking and will continue to take every opportunity to screw you.
    – Murphy
    Dec 23, 2015 at 12:09

3 Answers 3


Can I do something about it?

There aren't any magical answers here, but aside from the obvious options of either signing the contract and accepting that this is a price you'll have to pay for a really good professional development opportunity, or refusing to sign the contract under any conditions and seeking an alternative internship at a more accommodating institution, I see a third option: negotiate.

There are many possible ways to go about this, but here's one: I assume you were accepted to the internship by a PI/researcher who thought that you had good qualifications and that his/her lab would benefit from your work and talent. This person could be your ally. What I would do is write them a polite email along the following lines:

Dear Professor Smith,

Thank you for offering me the internship at your fusion reactor lab. I am excited about this wonderful opportunity and am looking forward to starting in a couple of months, and have even begun doing some background reading on flux capacitor technology to make sure I can be as productive and helpful as possible from day one. I am writing however to express a concern about an issue that came up and that may prevent me from taking on the internship. I was informed by your Office of Research that your university is refusing to accept the standard internship contract my own university advised me to use (see the email I received from them, appended below) and are asking me to agree to a change in the standard intellectual property clause, which in its present form is designed to protect the interests of myself, yourself and both our respective universities, to an alternative version that transfers all IP rights to your institution. I am afraid I don't see this as an acceptable or balanced arrangement from either a moral or practical point of view. I am happy to assign any rights that would allow your lab to exploit and make use of any work I do while at your lab as in my proposed contract, but since among other activities I will be developing code that I may want to use in the future for my thesis research or other legitimate purposes, I do not think it is reasonable to accept the terms offered by your university.

For this reason, I am asking for your help in resolving this situation. If we cannot reach an agreement, sadly I may be forced to withdraw my acceptance of your internship.

Best wishes,

[your name]

The thing to remember is that while you are negotiating with a counterparty that's massively more powerful than you (which is why they feel they can get away with making such demands), you do have a bit of leverage: they want something from you. Whether you will succeed depends on the personalities of the people involved, how badly the PI wants you, how many other talented students are lining up to take your place, how unique are the skills that you have to offer, how rigid the university's bureaucratic machinery is, etc. If the PI is unwilling or unable to help, you will find yourself back where you started, so you'll still have the option of either accepting the terms you're offered, or giving up the internship.

  • This is good advice as an option, but its important to remember there might be nothing you can change, so you should be confident you will not take the internship before threatening. My institute has the same agreement, anyone who works there signs the contract for IP. If a student starts emailing about this and not wanting to sign, we go on to the next person. Dec 26, 2015 at 2:42
  • @user1938107 I disagree. Note that my proposed email is careful not to take any irreversible positions (by using words like "may" and "might"), thus leaving the OP a ladder to climb off the tree if the negotiation gambit doesn't work out (in such a case he/she may lose a bit of face, but nothing to seriously worry about IMO, and in fact may gain some respect in the eyes of the PI by impressing them as being an assertive, thoughtful person).
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 26, 2015 at 4:54
  • if my lab had a contract, and someone emailed that they dont think the contract is moral nor practical, if the contract cannot change, there is no reason to bring this person to my lab, as i would not want to have them feel like they are under an immoral contract. Dec 26, 2015 at 6:01
  • @user who says the contract can't change? Besides, this is not an all or nothing type of thing. I see the email as the starting point of a negotiation in which the parties try to reach an arrangement they can both live with. Maybe it will turn out that at least a word in the contract can be changed, making a minor concession of some sort? Also the contract may not be written by the lab but dictated by a clueless university bureaucracy, and the lab PI could actually agree with the OP's position and help support it. There are many possible outcomes. Why give up without even testing the waters?
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 26, 2015 at 6:17
  • What I am saying is, if the contract is decided by the PI, or even if it is not, but there is nothing the PI can do, which is very likely in legal situations...in this case, if the PI agrees with the person or not, your letter has made clear they feel it is immoral. For example, to enter my lab, the contract is standard, and cannot be changed. If someone told me they feel the contract is immoral, and I know it can not be changed, I move on to the next person. There is no reason to bring on someone who feels they are being put into an unjust situation, because to me, that would be immoral. Dec 27, 2015 at 11:11

It is common for universities (at least in Europe) to have you sign-off the rights of your work when you are being paid by them. At least I had to do that as a PhD and a postdoc.

In your case, you will be working in a hi-end lab and they'll be training you, probably give you access to existing code and data, and not charge you for using their equipment. If there is already a large amount of code at the lab and you develop an extension to it (something that frequently happens in my lab) should you be allowed to use the entire platform later or not?

I would say that at this point of your academic career, you don't really have a lot of leverage, except refusing to sign and finding another lab. My advise is to sign the contract and go to the lab. Learn everything you can and do your best job. Once you leave the lab, ask the professor if you could keep using the code for your future projects, while citing his lab or some paper that you'll jointly publish. Most people will say yes.

If they refuse you to use your code, it doesn't stop you from using the ideas behind it as long as they have been published (article, thesis, etc.). In the past when dealing with unreasonable people, I rewrote a mathematical library that I developed to begin with, based only on the published papers. I even switched programming language and made many improvements the second time around. Of course, it was a wasted week...


If this is common practice, it should not be. It is exploitative.

If they will not negotiate down to something reasonable -- and they might; that contract has the air of being written by lawyers who did not explain it clearly to the lab -- do not take the internship. You can do better.

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