Imec Erik Jan Marinissen

Erik Jan Marinissen is scientific director at Imec.

22 June

Filling out the TU Eindhoven enrollment form with his son, Erik Jan Marinissen discovered students were supposed to waive their intellectual property rights. Fortunately, that policy has been canceled.

Imagine entering your local bakery and being asked to fill out a form before being allowed to buy freshly baked bread. The baker has kept the form very simple – name, address, signature and a single box to check: “I agree to assign all my intellectual property rights (IPR) to the bakery.” Folks who believe that they’ll never invent something might easily agree with this demand, but I’m glad I was never forced to sign such a thing. Nor would I’ve signed it. Me being a customer obviously doesn’t entitle the baker to my IPR, no matter how delicious his products are.

This ‘crazy bakery’ is my alma mater, Eindhoven University of Technology. I discovered this when my son enrolled in a bachelor’s program in the summer of 2014. As a proud father, happy to see my eldest son go to the same university where I’d received my education, we enjoyed filling out his enrollment form together.

Until we arrived at that checkbox. I explained to my son that TUE had no right to ask this of him and that I seriously doubted the university would be able to uphold this clause in a court of law. My son, who already started to regret the fact that he got his dad involved in something as simple as completing an enrollment form, reacted: “But it must be signed. Otherwise, you can’t start at TUE. And that’s what I want.”

The TUE student administration office, in charge of enrollments, confirmed this requirement by phone: checking the IPR transfer tick box was a condicio sine qua non for enrollment. A friendly lady recommended discussing the matter with TUE’s legal department. However, the expert in question was on summer break and would return after the only enrollment deadline. The friendly lady and I then agreed that my son would complete his enrollment form but leave the IPR transfer box unchecked for the time being. We sent in the form along with a notice of objection.

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I was fully prepared for a call back from TUE legal to discuss this matter on its merits. Frankly, I was eager to share my views with TUE bureaucrats: I would bestow upon them that their policy was close to theft, that doing research only, without bringing products to market, can never infringe third-party patents, that most inventions in our ‘Bits&Chips world’ only serve to increase the height of the patent stack during cross-license negotiations, implying that filing patents can make sense for companies but certainly doesn’t for universities, and hence, that university money spent on education is far more effective than when spent on patent filing fees and IPR litigation. I was even prepared to take this matter all the way up to the Minister of Education, if necessary.

Unfortunately, TUE legal never called me back. And my son convinced me to leave it at that. And so he’s studied at TUE without giving his IPR away, maybe as the only student.

As was bound to happen one day, some students got into a legal conflict with TUE about their patents. This conflict even made the national news. In a reaction, the Dutch Minister of Education at the time, Ingrid van Engelshoven, condemned TUE’s position, wanted a less greedy IPR policy and demanded all Dutch universities to be supportive of students with IPR. The Dutch parliament voted in June 2020 in favor of a motion calling for an unambiguous national guideline to be in force in September 2020, at the start of the new academic year. Even though TUE pretended it was difficult in their bookkeeping, they finally complied and abolished the ‘IPR checkbox’ from their enrollment form per the start of the academic year 2020-2021.

Fortunately, TUE also has staff members who have a much better and more realistic view of student IPR – see for example the Internships and Graduation Projects section in the TUE Education Guide. It warns students against overly greedy IPR clauses in the contracts of internship-providing companies. Appropriate and useful legal advice, but quite remarkable coming from the university that had a ‘crazy bakery’ policy on student IPR for many years.