Saturday, July 4, 2009

Former Students and Code Usage

The steps:

1) I hire grad student to work on a project.

2) Grad student writes a program to do the work.

3) Grad student publishes some papers and the grant is completed.

4) Grad student defends dissertation gets PhD.

5) Grad student gets a job elsewhere.

6) I keep a version of the code.

7) I write a proposal to do something new with the code.

8) Grad student gets mad that I am using “his” code without permission from him or funding for him.

Has anyone else had a familiar experience?

My first response is to tell him to get over it. I paid for the code development and mentored him on the science behind the necessity of the code. My second response, because I want to help him out, is to offer to include him on whatever papers I/my new grad student writes with results from the code. My third response is to actually offer him a subcontract to pay him to help continue developing the code. My fourth response it to totally ignore his unhappiness and continue as if I had never received his email.


  1. May depend on how you contracted him. If you offered a fixed amount for a "product", he may be proprietary owner. If you were paying him by the hour, that code is yours (or the university's).

    In the latter case, in the "real world", you could go as far as to prohibit the programmer from using this code anywhere else. Probably not the best de-escalating move though.

  2. Interesting difference between academia and the real world.

    PhD students are hired as research assistants to help their adviser with one of their projects, and to learn how to be an independent researcher. Sometimes this means building an experiment, taking data and analyzing it, sometimes it's analyzing a bunch of data from someone else's experiment, sometimes it's writing a new numerical code to solve an equation, sometimes it's modifying or even just using an existing code. There really was no contract signed. Technically, the code is probably the university's, because they are the ones actually agreeing with the sponsor (usually the government: NASA, NSF, or DOD, in my case) to perform the work.

  3. "Technically, the code is probably the university's"

    I think this is probably exactly right. I seem to recall that being a specific intellectual property policy at Northwestern, and I can't imagine it would be much different at Michigan.

    Technically, they can even try to lay claim to things you did off-the-clock, if they are similar enough to the types of things you do for them. That's a harder case for them to prove, but I know our intellectual property policy had some specific provisions for that sort of thing.

    Basically, your brain belongs to them.