In September 2018, it was widely reported by Nigerian media that the student who sculpted a famous Wole Soyinka sculpture in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife (as his final year project) objected to the tampering with his work by the university. The school had removed the head of the sculpture from its other parts and placed same on the roof of a museum. The artist, Dotun Popoola, is quoted to have said “Cutting off the books from the piece, and destroying the base made me feel as an artist that the work was relegated from monument to a mere craft.” Indeed, the above situation serves as a good example of what could happen when IP issues between an educational institution and its students are not adequately addressed. While several comments (e.g. see here and here) have been made on the IP issues arising from Popoola’s case, the focus of this piece is on the need for Nigerian students to be aware of their IP rights and take steps to protect same.
Anyone who does creative work might be able to relate to Popoola’s feelings. In my days at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), I recall that one mountain that final year students had to surmount and which the whole institution felt annually – with intense pressure – was the almighty “final year project”. This comes in different forms such as thesis writing, building some model, sculpting, dramatic works, etc. depending on the faculty/department. What never came to my mind, however, was the intellectual property implication of these works. Undoubtedly, these projects result in the production of some IP. Actually, IP works that may result from educational institutions are more than just works from our final year brethren. Works such as new/improved devices, technical processes, compositions, scholarly publications, computer programs, robotics (well-done UNILAG!), drama, music, stories, poetry, etc. are produced by students throughout the course of their studentship.
In Nigeria, copyright in a work is given either to the creator of the work or to their employer. Since your school is not considered your legal employer, that means any essay, painting, photograph, song, or other creative work you make as part of your academic career is owned by you. But there is more to this. There may be circumstances where the institution where one is a student may assert or obtain ownership, or acquire a licence to use the works.
The question of whether the IP rights emanating from a student in the course of her studentship at the school will be owned or co-owned by the student, her supervisor, her department, the university, or a third-party fund donor, etc., depends largely on the university’s intellectual property policy. These policies are often part of the various documents that students are required to sign during the enrolment process. Sometimes, this policy is incorporated into the registration documents by reference. All these documents form the basis of the studentship contract between a student and her university.
Depending on the terms of the policy, even if an institution does not have ownership of an invention via the student’s contribution, it may still have an ownership interest in the invention via the contributions of its employee – a project supervisor or lecturer. To elaborate, an invention may have both a student-inventor who may not be obligated to assign his/her rights in the invention to the institution and a co-inventor who is obligated to assign their rights in the invention to the institution. When this occurs, the institution and the student might co-own the intellectual property rights in the invention.
As students are usually the ‘weaker party’, they need to inform themselves on the intellectual property policy of their institutions so as to arrange their affairs accordingly, and not be caught off-guard. Some IP policies automatically require a transfer of all IPs created by students if same resulted from university support (see UNILAG’s IP policy).
What are IP rights and why should you care? Well, if you are absolutely new to the concept of IP rights, you can find a quick introduction to IP here. But generally, IP rights include copyright, patents, trademarks, and industrial designs; and, to put it simply, they emanate from original literary, artistic, or musical works, new inventions, and designs, distinctive marks used in connection with trade. Intellectual property has the potential of being extremely valuable. Although it is an intangible asset, IP can be much more valuable than physical assets. It is not unlikely that the value of the IP alone of tech company Apple supersedes the total value of all properties owned by all the universities in Nigeria put together. Given such value that can be created by IP, one ought to be clear on the position of the law/IP policy of works generated while schooling.
Knowledge of IP law in an educational environment is important not only for law students but for all students. One mustn’t let the excitement of gaining admission into a higher institution make you overlook its IP policy. Students must learn how to protect an idea, learn about non-disclosure agreements, and how to consult for IP advice. Having your institution’s IP policy in mind would enable you to be careful to share only details that will not put your IP at risk. Also, it helps you decide what, and how much, you are willing to share with your institution in exchange for your degree. No one knows how often the “flash of genius” would come. Works created while a student may not just be useful for passing a class or getting a good grade, they may very well be groundbreaking, or at least, building blocks used to create amazing new works in the future. These are why students must address issues of ownership of their works. Also, Nigerian higher institutions should consider introducing IP to all students as they prepare graduates to be productive contributors to the innovation economy. With the right support, the next unicorn startup may very well come from students of UNILAG or even OAU.
The work you’re creating now isn’t just useful for passing a class or getting a good grade on an assignment, they can be the building blocks that you use to create amazing new works in the future.
About the Author
Barrister Seun Lari-Williams, a legal practitioner and poet. Seun is popularly known in the creative arts for his collection of poems titled Garri for Breakfast. He recently won first prize for his paper on “Bridging the Value Gap Between Content Creators and Digital Media Platforms: A Case Study of YouTube”.