The expert’s view

Who owns the research?

It is often relevant to consider the ownership of research. A researcher employed by a research institution or a company may face the dilemma that his or her research could be owned by the employer in whole or in part. This has implications for the employer’s possible use of the research results without the consent of the employed researcher as well as for the extent of the researcher’s right to use the research.

In research collaborations the question may arise as to the rights of the individual researchers to the research and the research data etc, produced and collated as part of the collaboration. If a researcher in such collaboration gets a new job, can the researcher take research data with him/her? When the collaboration ends, can some of the researchers continue to work on the project without permission from the others?  These issues should be addressed in an agreement, see the articles on Agreements on research collaborations and Industrial PhD candidates.

However, the question of “who owns the research” is legally imprecise. Research may thus be subject to several different types of legal rights which all must be taken into consideration when addressing the legal aspects of such conflicts.

Rights to research

Research usually results in something that may be subject to legal protection against unlawful use by others. This legal protection may, in particular, follow from the rules of property law and the rules of intellectual property law (IP). In a number of cases, these rules are supplemented by rules governing legal protection of trade secrets, duty of confidentiality.

Under property law, the owner of a physical object has normally unlimited access to dispose of it. If you own a house, for example, you can decide who should be allowed to enter it, and you can sell it, lend it out, rent it out etc. Intellectual property rights/IP rights, on the other hand, provide an exclusive right to exploit works, inventions, etc. in certain ways. Your exclusive right is not related to physical things but to the “work” and the “invention” etc, as an abstract concept. Previous definitions stated that ordinary property rights related to physical things, whereas intellectual property rights related to “intangible assets”.

Intellectual property rights and ordinary property right are governed by separate systems and do not follow each other. If you for example walk into a bookstore and buy a book, you get ownership of the physical copy of the book you take home. You do not get, however, the copyright to the contents of the book; that stays with the author and the publisher. By virtue of the right of property, the purchaser of the book is largely free to decide what to do the copy. But you are not allowed to copy it and upload the copy to the web, even if you have the ownership. That would constitute an infringement of copyright.

Further reading

In these articles, you can read more about the different forms of legal protection of research – and who, in a legal sense, “has the ownership of research results”:

The rules governing the protection of business secrets  etc. are found different places in Danish law. In particular, reference can be made to: