Writing While Employed: Intellectual Property and Learning Moments Involved

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I recovered from a skin cancer scare that was a negative (the good negative), and later then took precautions after Facebook logged off 90 million of their users. This was after a reported attack on 50 million of them. In the midst of this, I started to work on the process of getting one of my short stories submitted somewhere. Right around the time, our university updated their employee’s handbook and requested us to read it all, which I did. In the process, I noticed something rather peculiar, though nothing I was vaguely forewarned about during the summer.

There were policies pertaining to works that belong to the university while the person is one of their employees, whether staff or faculty. The good news is, they did make a distinction between what works belonged to the employee and which ones the university would own the intellectual property rights over. With this, I knew there was a chance I could keep full intellectual property rights over my work.

The “bad” news was that some areas of these policies were gray, or needed real clarity. It was not a completely “bad” thing, really, as I wanted to speak with the legal office anyway, to cover my bases. To this end, I contacted our university’s legal office for advice. They directed me to the individual responsible for intellectual property. After a brief e-mail conversation with them, they determined my work solely mine. This was a relief for me.

To be safe over sorry, I had to have my supervisor inform the legal office and confirm that I did not use significant university resources or work time for creating my works. This was definitely the case, as barring the first few weeks of my employment, I really had no time to do anything but my job or the occasional Google searches or trivial things like that. I also have been very careful to keep my work time and writing time separate. In part, I had already heard the horror stories of universities trying to claim royalties or intellectual property rights over their employees’ works. One case I remembered hearing was a university (not mine) doing so over something as frivolous as the employee having the work proofread at a publicly available, university-hosted workshop.

In addition, to that end, I ran a few scenarios through with the person in charge of intellectual property policies at the university to make sure I would keep safe. I am in the middle of working on policies for my department, and the representative from the legal office I work closely with reinforced the idea of me looking at the ‘craziest’ scenarios and considering them in what I do. My clarity on policies are treated accordingly.  Fortunately, the individual in charge of our intellectual property policy is one of the nicest people out there and definitely does not reflect the attitude of someone who would go out of their way to claim a work. Still, again, I wanted to cover my bases. Through his advice and our talk, I am feeling comfortable with being both a writer and a staff-faculty at the university. My supervisor only needs to vouch for me keeping my writing and my work separate and we will be on our merry way.

The lesson learned here is that there comes great responsibility with representing a university, or any entity that employs a person while being a writer. When you are expected to represent your employer, both when on-the-clock and otherwise, hoping you can keep work at work (not always an option, as faculty well know), it is important to look at their policies on intellectual property. Familiarize yourself with them, and err on the strictest possibility or ask when you are in doubt. If nothing else, it will prepare you for making sure your work remains your own. At the least, you have more control over who owns any work you put on paper or in a Google doc on your Drive.

Copyright laws and intellectual property rights are very gray on their own, and being an employee for someplace, especially a university, make such laws even murkier. There is a lot of stake in having works created, published, and distributed in a business like academics, and you are not the only one with that stake in the process. It is no accident universities have a legal team. And in the case of bigger universities, they might have individual departments who require at least one person with a J.D. at their disposal.


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