Texas Tech University

Intellectual Property: A Whole Lot More Than Copyrights and Patents

By Marianne Evola

Recently, I was invited to speak with students on intellectual property and plagiarism. Students often have a very limited understanding of the concept of intellectual property. Often, no one tells students that all of the information that they learn in their classes, in their textbooks and from their mentor is the intellectual property of other people. Facts contained in a textbook are the individual and combined discoveries of countless academic ancestors from multiple disciplines. Therefore, when students start writing papers, they do not realize that the widely accepted assumptions on which they base their research is actually intellectual property that must be cited. In many cases, they generally read and remember to cite the more contemporary work that is directly related to their current research. Yet often students neglect to research their accepted knowledge to find out exactly who did the original work. Furthermore, they fail to realize their responsibility to review the original methods and results, rather than just report the information as it was taught to them in class. New students, especially, often fail to make the transition from constructing answers on a test to responsibly and ethically writing and publishing about the work of others.

So, I thought that I would try to raise student awareness to the broad concept of intellectual property as well as the respect and courtesy that is owed to their colleagues, past and present.

So how do students think about intellectual property? Undergraduate students probably think about copyright in the manner of music, movies and software, and the rights and wrongs associated with downloading and sharing copyrighted material. Furthermore, with regard to copyright, even graduate students and faculty struggle with appropriate educational use of intellectual property and how they can use information without violating copyright law. For information on the educational use of copyright material, the reader is referred to the Texas Tech OP that addresses these issues.

Beyond copyright, graduate students in applied sciences, such as engineering, probably think about the opportunities for their research and creativity to evolve to patents and marketable products. In both the cases of copyright and patents, the creator builds a product that is sold for monetary gain. Purchasers pay money for the use or ownership of your product or intellectual property. These are probably the easier concepts of intellectual property to grasp, a product created for the sale of money.

Even in these seemingly simple areas of intellectual property violations, however, there often is no intention of violating the rights and trust of the creators. The concept is often poorly understood, so the violators are ignorant of their violation. When I was a kid, I had no concept of intellectual property, and people really did not discuss it. Well, actually, they may have discussed it, but I was a kid and was not paying attention to anything but schoolwork and playmates. However, we regularly violated copyright with the tools of portable radios and tape recorders. At that time, violating music copyright was a lot of work for low-quality products. We would sit around all day with our portable tape recorder, listening to the radio and waiting for the station to play our favorite song. Then when the song came on, we would rapidly hit the record button, the DJ would speak over the start or the finish of the song, there would generally be background noise as our mom hollered at us for some reason, the dog barked, and of course, we just could not keep quiet for the full duration of the song. After all, it was our favorite song, and that cannot be met with silence. Then afterward, we would play the song over and over, driving our parents insane, until another song caught our ear, and the process would start again. The interesting thing is that when I think back, there was not sharing of our poor recording because there was never more than one kid in the group that had a functioning tape recorder, at least not in my neighborhood. And there was never a large collection of poor music recordings because we only had one or two cassette tapes. So in a few days, we would have to record over that song with a newer song that grabbed our attention. It didn’t take long for the world to change, and technology made access to intellectual property much easier and of much better quality, so copyright had to be better protected, awareness needed to be raised, and the illegal downloading of music, movies and software became widely understood as piracy.

Although pondering the illicit tape recording violations of my preteens is fun to remember and presents an innocent image of intellectual property violation, I left my preteens, and my cassette tape recorder, behind long ago. I also left my ignorance of the importance of intellectual property behind long ago. And it is time for the rest of the academic community to become aware of and raise awareness of the importance of respecting intellectual property, a key responsibility of the academic community and essential to the practice of sharing ideas to promote progress.

Intellectual property violations are not limited to the public failing to provide monetary payment for a product that the creator wants to sell. Most violations in the academic world are violations of intellectual property that have been freely shared with the public. The concept of shared ideas is often confused with publicly owned ideas. Many people mistakenly believe that when a creator publishes his or her ideas so that anyone can utilize the work, the intellectual property belongs to the public. The truth is that publishing ideas is a means for the authors of a manuscript to publicly establish ownership of the intellectual property shared in the manuscript. Manuscripts are published with a list of authors and, in the process of publishing the authors, take claim of the intellectual property, with all the privileges and responsibilities that come with that claim. The authors take the responsibility that their ideas are reported with integrity and accuracy while the public takes the responsibility for giving credit to the authors if we utilize their ideas. We pay the authors for the use of their ideas by citing them when we utilize their ideas in our own work. So although we do not pay for the use of shared ideas with money, we pay with citation and credit.

It is absolutely critical for researchers to credit their colleagues for the use of their ideas because the research community relies on the sharing of their ideas for research and technology to progress. For the most part, we function as a community of trust. We trust that when we share our ideas, others will give us credit for their use. We also trust that when we read the ideas of others, the data has been effectively collected and is appropriately represented in the publication. As such, we can build on the ideas of others without having to repeat every level of the experimental progress. We rely on the trust to share and build, and when the trust is violated, it is an attack on the academic community and the historical research process on which we rely. So for many academics, violation of intellectual property is a very personal offense.

The most common violation of intellectual property is plagiarism. Plagiarism is the use of another person’s words or ideas without appropriately giving them credit for their contribution. Plagiarism is theft and a very personal violation of trust, as well as research misconduct. I have written on plagiarism in the past and addressed why people plagiarize and how it can be purposeful or accidental. I have also addressed how cultural differences in academics can underlie misunderstandings on plagiarism and research integrity. That said, I will reiterate that whether accidental or purposeful, plagiarism is still plagiarism. It is the writer’s responsibility to ensure that they do not accidentally plagiarize. Furthermore, even though it is widely accepted that cultural differences underlie many cases of research misconduct and plagiarism, students need to be aware that it is not an excuse for misconduct. Again, it is the responsibility of the writer to know the research and publication policies in the culture where they have chosen to pursue educational and career opportunities. Finally, although there are cultural differences, the international research community is trying to address these differences, so that practices are consistent across cultures. The World Conference on Research Integrity has created an international statement on research integrity to address these differences and challenge all cultures to change their practices to conform to a single academic process that will enhance scientific progress and international career development.

I challenge students to increase their awareness and respect for intellectual property. It is only by respecting the work of our academic ancestors and contemporary colleagues, and honoring them with citation, that we can distinguish the new branches of science that we build. If you do not know who did the work and assumptions on which you form your ideas, you need to research the history of your discipline. It is your intellectual responsibility to fully educate yourself on the history of your discipline and to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the work of your colleagues. You cannot build a career of distinction without gaining the respect of your colleagues and a single violation of the community trust will cause permanent damage to your reputation as a responsible researcher.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger. Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.