The Rights to Our Work

I think it is insulting that the university gets such a large cut of any IP and you are forced to give up any and all rights to your own creativity. I think that the university should encourage creativity for the sake of creativity and not for the sake of their own profit.

–Graduate Student in Biomedical Graduate Studies

The work I did as an RA went beyond the pale of standard RA duties. For $18/hr, I not only collected evidence and interpreted it, but when I consolidated my findings in prose form, the faculty member (who is also on my dissertation committee) published it verbatim and with no attribution. When the journal sent back peer reviews, he barely even looked at the suggested edits – he just forwarded me the comments and told me to make the changes. Let me be clear: I wrote this entire article. But I felt powerless to say anything, and I didn’t know where to turn for support so that I didn’t have to confront him alone.

–Graduate Student in School of Arts and Sciences


I have written lots of software during my time as a grad student worker at Penn, in collaboration with other Penn grad student workers. We decided that a GPL 2 license would give all future users the maximum flexibility to use and alter our code, while preventing anyone from profiting off software that arose out of publicly funded research. I do not know if Penn has the ability to revoke this license and try to sell my software for a profit but I hope that this will not happen.

–Graduate Student in Biomedical Graduate Studies


Penn is a renowned research institution, which relies on the work of doctoral, post-doctoral, and faculty employees. Penn’s prestige and its ability to attract new students and grants depend on the research of its graduate employees. Penn also generates revenues from graduate students’ marketable research. It is not uncommon for Penn to enter multi-million dollar research partnerships with global corporations like Pfizer, who then profit from the low-paid and expert work of graduate student employees.  When it comes to property rights and royalties to Penn-licensed knowledge and goods, the Penn legal team has the University’s back. But who has the back of the graduate researchers who help make new discoveries, whose careers depend on producing their own original work?

Before starting their research at Penn, most STEM graduate student workers relinquish their rights to their intellectual and tangible research property. When they get to Penn, these graduate student workers must sign Penn’s Patent and Tangible Research Property Participation Agreement, which states:


I hereby irrevocably assign to The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania all right, title and interest in and to any and all such INVENTIONS, effective retroactively to my Start Date.”

“I hereby irrevocably assign to The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania all right, title and interest in and to any and all such TANGIBLE RESEARCH PROPERTY, effective retroactively to my Start Date.


The inventions and tangible research property included in these clauses are not limited to those produced as a Penn employee or even as a Penn student. Through this mandated agreement, Penn also obtains ownership over everything produced through the substantial use of university resources including independent research not conducted under a PI, i.e. nearly anything produced in a Penn laboratory. In some cases, if a graduate employee wants to obtain rights to their own research, they must navigate a confusing legal system, and sometimes encounter challenges or intimidation from the University. Meanwhile, in many non-STEM fields, co-authorship is not the professional convention, and the lines between research assistant and ghost writer can become blurry. In these cases, there are few resources or clear rules to protect grad employees’ rights to their own work. They run the risk of exploitation by professors who have access to their work, without recourse.

When graduate student workers give up their intellectual property rights, they have little say in the matter. Penn’s Patent and Tangible Research Property Policies and Procedures are revised periodically, with input from the Office of General Council, the Faculty Senate Committee on Faculty, the Penn Administration, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, before they are adopted by the Board of Trustees. Graduate student workers are noticeably absent from these review and approval procedures, even though the products of their labor are subject to the same agreement.  


GET-UP, as a union of graduate student workers, can advocate for graduate student workers to have a voice in the development of intellectual and tangible research property policies. We can fight for fairer and more equitable policies that do not simply require graduate student workers to unilaterally relinquish their rights as a precondition of their work at Penn. We can also advocate to give support to our graduate colleagues through subsidized counsel from patent lawyers, which may protect graduate employees as valuable scholars and professionals in their own right.

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