If a company or any external organization collaborates with a University to fund research - perhaps even open a lab - who owns the intellectual property (IP) of anything that results from that research? Is it the company, the university, or both?

Do cases like these affect IP ownership:

  • the university buys equipment/pays its professors and student researchers with money granted by the company
  • the company uses equipment and funds available at the university to conduct research?
  • 2
    In which country? If nothing specific has been agreed upon, the default owner is probably either the employer or the employees, depending on the country. Feb 28, 2016 at 6:25
  • 11
    This can't be answered in general - it will depend on whatever the contract was, which must be written and accepted before any research begins. Feb 28, 2016 at 11:42
  • There is a good reason for having a good contract. without specific contract it would be a very messy legal problem.
    – Greg
    Feb 28, 2016 at 15:03

2 Answers 2


The division of intellectual property rights will be explicitly specified in every research contract negotiated by competent personnel, no matter who the funder is. In my experience, I have seen that the typical arrangements fall into five rough categories along a spectrum of control:

  1. The researcher's organization retains all IP rights.
  2. The researcher's organization retains all IP rights, but automatically grants a non-exclusive license to the funding organization.
  3. The researcher's organization retains all IP rights, but the funding organization has an option to exclusively license all IP rights.
  4. The researcher's organization transfers all IP rights to the funding organization, but retains an automatic license to the IP.
  5. The researcher's organization transfers all IP rights to the funding organization.

Research contracts also often divide a project into different areas that mix and match these rights. For example, the researcher's organization might have non-exclusive licensing (#2) for all basic research work, but transfer all rights for a planned prototype (#5) to the funding organization.

Corporately funded research contracts tend to fall anywhere along the spectrum from #2 to #5, depending on the nature of the research and the motivation for the contract. More basic research tends to be viewed as "pre-competitive," and companies funding such research will generally be large and with a long view and happy to grant liberal rights, since they are more concerned with reshaping their strategic landscape (e.g., extending Moore's Law) and trust their ability to build internally off of basic research breakthroughs. More applied research and research funded by smaller companies tends to be more immediately relevant to competitive advantage: it tends to have much more tightly restricted IP rights and at its most applied shades into consulting.

  • 2
    This answer is the correct one. The office of sponsored projects (or whatever it is called at any given university) negotiates every single sponsored project's contract, and the contract includes language that specifically addresses IP rights. Sometimes this is simple, such as with the US federal government, and sometimes it's not, such as with industry sponsors. The important point to know is that even if you, the researcher, has never seen the actual language of the contract, it will still exist on someone's hard drive. Feb 28, 2016 at 19:11

It should be negotiated and specified in a written contract. Each contract could be different.

  • 3
    And if somehow there's not a contract that specifies (which can only be described as a massive oversight, if so), what happens in most jurisdictions is that the inventor of the IP retains ownership unless there's an employer-employee relationship involved, in which case the employer is generally entitled to the rights to any IP that the employee creates "in the course of employment".
    – aroth
    Feb 28, 2016 at 10:39
  • @aroth Do oyu mean US by "most jurisdictions". I am really not sure it holds internationally (though most places do not forget to sign a contract when exchange large sums of money).
    – Greg
    Feb 28, 2016 at 15:06
  • @Greg - I mean the US and most "Western" nations. For instance, here's a discussion of the concept as applied in Australia. Though as with all things legal, YMMV and it's always best to consult with a local lawyer if you have anything more than theoretical concerns.
    – aroth
    Feb 28, 2016 at 15:38
  • @aroth This seems to be yet another difference between common law and civil law. For example, in many (most?) European countries, copyright is seen primarily as author's right. Without specific agreements or regulations to the contrary, copyright belongs to the employee, not the employer. Feb 28, 2016 at 19:59
  • 1
    @Greg I'd go out say that in every jurisdiction in absence of a specific contract term the IP will belong either to the employee or their employer, but never to a third party / external company that contributed funds indirectly, as asked by the original question.
    – Peteris
    Feb 28, 2016 at 20:07

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