IP & Patents: Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is intellectual property (IP)?
    • Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind. This can include inventions (typically covered by patents), creative works (including literary works, music and movies, typically covered by copyrights), and brand names (typically covered by trademarks). IP differs from tangible assets, such as cars, computers or land.
    • For more information, consult Intellectual Property Essentials for Academic Researchers from the University of California
    • For a quick primer on the major types of IP, here's a video from the USPTO
    • For a quick primer on the patent process, watch Aubie as he navigates it from conception to issued patent.

  2. What is a patent?
    • Generally speaking, patents protect inventions. An issued patent allows the owner of the patent to exclude others from making, using or selling the invention. Patents are granted by the government, typically on a country-by-country basis, in exchange for full disclosure of the invention. The term of patent protection can vary but it is typically about 20 years from the date that a patent application was first filed. Patents often cover devices, but they can also address processes, algorithms and biological or chemical entities.

  3. Why do patents matter to a university?
    • Patents grant exclusivity of an invention. This, in turn, provides incentive to companies and/or individuals to invest in the ideas protected by the patents. It is very common for inventions that come out of research labs to require significant further development before they can reach the market. Thus, investment is needed. If competitors could just steal the idea once a product is developed and launched, then it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to get anyone to invest in the further development of the idea in the first place. Thus, patent protection may be a prerequisite for many university inventions to ever be realized outside of the lab.  As a public university, Auburn endeavors to see inventions realized for public benefit.

      Further, patent protection allows universities to license inventions, which can bring revenue back to the university. Some of that revenue is then shared with the inventors under university policy.

  4. Who owns patents that are generated by university research?
    • Ownership and disposition of patents and other intellectual property generated at the university are determined by Auburn's Patent Policy, federal law (when applicable) and agreements with outside parties (when applicable). Generally speaking, inventions generated by research done at the university are owned by the university.

      For more information on University policies as they relate to patents and copyrights, please consult the Policies and Procedures page.

  5. How can I protect patent rights?
    • To receive patent protection, a patent application must at some point be filed. To protect patent rights in most international countries, such a patent application must be filed before the first public disclosure of the technology. If this is not done, then patent rights for most of the world will be lost. The United States and a few other countries offer a one year grace period. However, it is still preferred to file a patent application before the first public disclosure.

      The Office of Innovation Advancement and Commercialization can assist with this process. You may contact us with questions or submit an intellectual property disclosure to our office. Please allow as much time as possible before a public disclosure to submit an invention to allow us the time to properly address your needs.

  6. What constitutes a "public disclosure" that can affect patent rights?
    • A public disclosure is any "fully enabling" description of an invention that is provided to the public. In academic situations, this most often relates to journal publications and conference presentations. However, keep in mind that journal publications publish online first, sometimes even before uncorrected proofs are received. There are many ways in which inventions can be publicly disclosed, including:
      • Journal publications (online and print)
      • Conference presentations
      • Abstracts submitted to conferences (often published online as soon as they are submitted)
      • Doctoral theses, which are typically published online
      • Abstracts of federally funded proposals; typically the entire proposal can be requested under FOIA
      • Presentations given to or electronic/written materials provided to people outside the university
      • Any other online publication, including posting to an online forum or placing something on your lab website
      All of these can adversely affect patent rights if proper steps are not taken in advance. For university-owned patents, which will typically be the case for research-based inventions, disclosure within the university is not generally considered a public disclosure.

      The Office of Innovation Advancement and Commercialization supports public dissemination of academic works. But we do request that you work with us in advance of such publications if you think you may have a potentially patentable invention. If you are planning to disclose the invention to an outside party outside of standard publication routes, such as to an outside company to gauge their potential interest, then that can be done under a confidentiality agreement. IAC manages those agreements as well.

  7. How do I disclose an intellectual property to the University?