Creations of Many Minds: Contextualizing Intellectual Property Issues Arising from Collaborations Across the Disciplines of Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design

Prepared By Gabrielle Carels for sead

Creations of Many Minds: Contextualizing Intellectual Property Issues Arising from Collaborations Across the Disciplines of Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design

Navigating intellectual property (IP) rights in collaborations across sciences, engineering, arts, and design can be a complex endeavor for all concerned. This paper discusses cross-disciplinary collaborations in which IP might pose obstacles and opportunities and have an impact on creative forms.


Because IP in cross-disciplinary collaborations is an unstable factor that is interwoven into the participants' shifting contexts, disciplinary knowledge, and professional relationships, it can be of significant consequence. Such collaborations take place not only between a wide range of disciplines (the focus here is on sciences, engineering, arts, and design, with attention given to comparison and contrast with amateur and professional statuses), but also in many different situations and in a variety of structures, including academic frameworks, designated cultural programs, organizations that facilitate residencies within industry, and self-organized projects.1 Some collaborators may have multiple roles and affiliations tied to policies that could dictate that other parties---employers or sponsors---have a stake in IP that might emerge from independently initiated collaborations. In this paper we address these issues through four detailed case studies.

Along these lines, in addition to complex contexts, this white paper notes that the wide variety of collaborators' general knowledge of IP, especially in relation to cross-disciplinary collaborations, can also be a destabilizing element within these frequently experimental arrangements; this factor is influenced by collaborators' understanding of the ways in which IP is approached and regarded in their primary fields. However, in some cases, interviewees (also referred to here anonymously as "informants") had only very general ideas about and a vague interest in IP, even in their primary field, which could make potential fundamental decisions difficult to resolve if they arose. One scientist involved in a successful cross-disciplinary collaboration disarmingly stated, "I have to confess that I had never given a thought to intellectual property concerns in my collaboration" (pers. comm.), underscoring that IP rights do not necessarily have to be exercised (Merges 2011, 84--86), and giving emphasis to the two case studies in this white paper that show they need not be an obstacle if approached reasonably.

However, the sources of IP conflict are also an uncertain component. In fact, two case studies in this white paper reveal obstacles and issues emanating from nonprimary collaborators, highlighting a seemingly less predictable external threat. Based on interviews, there also appears to be a particularly loose sense of IP in relation to publicity, news, and sharing, with potential exposure and recognition tending to encourage some to give over material for reproduction with little consideration of terms, while more care might be taken in terms of IP in other contexts. In addition, the fine print of agreements can sometimes elude authors, allowing for other unintended uses of their works.2


This white paper also focuses on the media used in these collaborations and the kinds of innovations that arise from them, and thus touches upon the perception of participants' credibility,3 imagination, persuasion, and trust as based to some degree on values, both in their professional roles and as expressed in their intellectual properties.

Owing to the perceived sensitive nature of discussing IP obstacles within cross-disciplinary collaborations, some informants chose to remain anonymous in order not to disturb ongoing personal and professional relationships, among other reasons. Protecting anonymity required omitting some descriptions of the projects under discussion, which also masked some relevant information and concerns. One informant pointedly said that he had not shared everything, and many others we approached declined to participate altogether. While in some cases this was due to scheduling conflicts, it could also be a significant finding for a white paper aimed at identifying IP obstacles and opportunities in cross-disciplinary collaborations, because it serves as a reminder that IP concerns are frequently both confidential and ongoing, and further suggests a potential long-term effect for future considerations---that those who have negative experiences in cross-disciplinary collaborations might not disclose their obstacles and might not pursue these collaborations again, while those who have positive experiences might not disclose approaches that could otherwise serve as models to reduce obstacles and encourage successful cross-disciplinary collaborations.

It certainly suggests the need for more study, though we strongly suspect that the benefit of disclosing confidential information is less obvious than the benefit of protecting reputations and personal and professional relationships. Nevertheless, we have been able to include a number of bold disclosures, firsthand accounts, and evidence of productive outcomes.

In spite of scant non-Western examples and few comparisons and contrasts in the larger realm of international law and economics, we might urge consideration of an assertive exploratory curriculum that centralizes IP to inspire creativity (see Japan Patent Office, Asia-Pacific Industrial Property Center, and Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation 2008). While this is an intriguing approach, it could potentially raise questions about a balanced or neutral presentation of IP. An instruction guide in the US that is narrowly focused on ethics and references interdisciplinary collaboration might offer a point of contrast (Online Ethics Center for Engineering 2006).

This white paper is not intended to offer legal solutions to specific problems. Instead, it focuses primarily on four case studies and notes areas in which there are obstacles and opportunities in relation to IP in cross-disciplinary collaborations.


To read the full White Paper please visit: Creations Of Many Minds: Contextualizing Intellectual Property Issues Arising From Collaborations Across The Disciplines Of Science, Engineering, Arts, And Design

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Prepared By Gabrielle Carels on behalf of SEAD

Acknowledgements & Credits

Authors: Robert Thill and Audrey Pic; Adviser: Roger Malina; Developed in Partnership with artsactive

Coordinator: Robert Thill


SEAD (Science, Engineering, Art and Design) Network Initiative

(under National Science Foundation Grant No.1142510)


White Papers Steering Committee

SEAD White Paper Curatorial Committee Chair: Roger Malina 

Committee; Carol LaFayette, Carol Strohecker, Lucinda Presley


This paper is part of a 2012-2013 SEAD network initiative to identify opportunities and challenges for research and creative work integrating disciplines of sciences, engineering, arts and design. White Papers were first posted at This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1142510, Collaborative Research: EAGER: Network for Science, Engineering, Arts and Design (NSEAD) IIS, Human Centered Computing. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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