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Topics: Applied Physics, Commentary, Economy, Education, Einstein, Research

Did Einstein "own" Special and General Relativity, the photoelectric effect (for which the Nobel Prize was awarded); Brownian Motion or Mass-Energy equivalence? Did Richard Feynman "own" his diagrams? He's also credited for being the father of nanotechnology with his seminal talk: "There's plenty of room at the bottom." Norio Taniguchi, a Tokyo Science University Professor coined the term nanotechnology in 1974: does he, or his descendents "own" it? These things are known and associated with them, but we have never asked the ultimate question of ownership.

I know, for example, any process I changed as an engineer was "owned" by the company I was working for at the time. If I applied for a patent, my name would be on it, but the company "owned" the intellectual property rights. It works the same for universities: whatever inventions you file patents for, your institution "owns" it. It's something in Pavlovian fashion I will admit, I have been conditioned to accept.

That cannot, however, stop you from "thinking" about it even if you've left your notes with the lab you worked on the invention in.

In the era of the Internet and pirating, this question has gotten even thornier.

In the late 1990s, business managers and academic researchers tried to tackle what they saw as an urgent and growing problem: When knowledge workers such as industrial physicists walked out the door in the evening, they inevitably took valuable intellectual property with them. Managers did not fear the theft of patent documents. They feared losing a collection of intangible skills, a deep knowledge of the company’s processes, relationships with other technical workers, and the general know-how that makes an experienced employee more valuable than someone fresh out of college. In other words, businesses were worried that they did not fully own scientists’ minds.

Over the course of centuries, a struggle has been playing out about who gets to own ideas. Is it the person who comes up with them? The employer who funds the research? Or should the ideas be somehow shared between them?

For the most part, that struggle has resulted in scientists slowly losing control of their discoveries, both in private industry and in academia. Patents once went to the inventor by default, but now they belong to the employer. Hands-on skill and experience with the research process—sometimes called know-how or tacit knowledge—was once the most fundamentally personal part of what a worker brought to the table, yet business lawyers have built a variety of legal tools to constrain skilled workers from offering it up on the free market. By the 1990s teams of MBAs and business-school scholars joined forces to see if advances in information technology, management techniques, law, and sociology could allow them to extract workers’ know-how so that the company could store and own it indefinitely. The resulting academic research field and management fad became known as “knowledge management.”

This article traces changes in US law, business practices, and social expectations about research and invention in order to illuminate the history of business control over scientists’ ideas. It will not be the whole history—I skip over huge amounts of history about government sponsorship of research, changing national and international economic conditions, ties between industrial and academic scientists, and many other topics that would be needed for that.1 Still, it is a slice of history that physicists would do well to remember. We live in an age of strong intellectual property rights and relatively weak protections for workers, especially in high-tech fields where unionization is low. Where once an industrial scientist had unquestioned ownership of his or her ideas, that self-determination has eroded in many ways over centuries. Knowing that past might help scientists evaluate what they hope to see in the future.

Who owns a scientist’s mind? Douglas O’Reagan, Physics Today

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