Financial Administration

Computer Software Ownership (G10)

Revised: October 21, 1985


  1. Background

    The primary objective of policies concerning ownership of intellectual property must be to preserve, protect and foster the open and creative expression and exchange of information, ideas and research results. This is not only the responsibility of a public educational institution, it is the basic premise on which a university must exist.

    To encourage the production and distribution of creative works, our legal system has established property rights for inventions and writings through patents and copy-rights. Ownership of these properties is reserved to the creator for a limited time during which the creator may sell, lease or distribute the product of his/her efforts. The purpose of these limited rights is to establish an incentive to make the fruits of individual creativity available to society at large.

    Although governmental agencies and most businesses assert ownership of the intellectual property created by their employees, the University of Wisconsin System has not typically done so. Such ownership provides the opportunity to withhold as well as disseminate. Ownership of intellectual property by the University would provide a general right, and perhaps a responsibility to censor; this runs counter to the University mission to engage in open innovation and inquiry. Individual ownership is also more consistent with the self-directed nature of much university work and of Wisconsin traditions in particular.

    The intellectual property in original works of authorship such as books, articles and similar works, is protected by copyright, which is held to exist at the point the material is created. As with patents, ownership at the University is normally vested in the creator. For example, faculty have ordinarily owned rights to books created in the course of their scholarly activities, regardless of the funding mix supporting their work and the extent to which University resources have been used in their preparation. Copyright law has been amended recently to include computer software. One provision called "work for hire" states that when an employee is specifically directed to produce a software product as a condition of employment, ownership rights including copyright rest with the employer.


  2. Policy

    1. It is the policy of the UW System that ownership of software created as a consequence of individual scholarship be vested with the creator.

    2. If the software is created under the sponsorship of a grant or contract, the ownership should be defined before the project is undertaken.

    3. If the software development is a joint effort (i.e., faculty and graduate students) the rights of ownership should be defined before the project begins.

    4. If the software is developed by an employee hired for that purpose, the software is owned by the University.

    5. Each institution should inform faculty, students and staff of their ownership rights.