A Paper on Engineering Ethics college
topic: ECE350 (Human Communication for EEs)
Engineering is not only about using brick and metal to build physical towers: the basis of engineering is the ideas that engineers have. Just as burning and looting buildings is immoral, so is stealing the ideas of another and calling them your own.
In this paper, we will discuss a hypothetical case developed in Intellectual Property Rights: A Student's Guide, by Chin Yee Ng at MIT.
formats: Adobe PDF (67.2kB), PostScript (57.4kB), TeX (10.1kB) 1997-03-21 quality 5

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\centerline{\big Engineering Ethics}
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\centerline{Zak Smith  ~~ Tony Widjaja ~~ Tyler Van Buren}
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Engineering is not only about using brick and metal to build physical towers: the
basis of engineering is the {\it ideas that engineers have.}  Just as burning and
looting buildings is immoral, so is stealing the ideas of another and calling them
your own.

In this paper, we will discuss a hypothetical case developed in {\it Intellectual
Property Rights: A Student's Guide}, by Chin Yee Ng at MIT.    The full story
is at \storyurl, so we will merely summarize the situation.

There are three graduate research assistants working under a professor
on cutting--edge research, which is funded in part by the NSF and
an industrial sponsor who hopes to be the first company to capitalize
on the technology when it reaches maturity.  These three students, Zhu, Harris, 
and Blum are excited about this technology and it seems natural that they
should start their own company after graduation to bring their
academic research to commercial fruition.

What does this have to do with engineering ethics?   The question
at hand is ``who owns the intellectual property rights to the
results of the research?'' and ``who can use them?''  Can the three
graduate researchers ethically start their own company using the
information and methods they learned in the lab?  Does the industrial
sponsor have any special rights to the technology?    How should the
students proceed?  These are the questions we will address using the
information we found on the MIT web site \siteurl.

What do these students need to consider in order to respect the intellectual
property right of the industrial sponsor?
of all, the students should find out what agreements were made between the
laboratory and the sponsors.
The documents concerning the agreements  should provide the details.

The second concern is the existing intellectual property portfolio in the
laboratory, such as patents that have been granted to the laboratory and
``licensing agreements in force.''  The students also have to respect the
confidential information that the sponsoring company has given to the
students for the research. [1]

Where can they go to obtain answer on this topic?
To get information on all of the agreements between the laboratory and
the sponsoring company, they should go to the office which negotiated 
the sponsorship.
Next, to obtain information on the intellectual property portfolio of the
laboratory, they should visit the office in charge of licensing 
research information at the college.
Lastly, the principal investigator of the laboratory can provide good
information on intellectual property generated in the laboratory since he
would have had experience with the sponsoring company. 

Does the NSF's requirement for public disclosure conflict with the
industrial sponsor's need for confidentiality?    According to Ng's research,
in any case in which there are both industrial and government sponsors, the
government's requirements for the release of information always
outweighs the industrial sponsor's need for confidentiality.   Also, most
universities are tax--exempt, and to retain this status, the government
requires that they ``openly disseminate'' any research results. [1]

The three graduate students have gained lots of experience in the years of
doing research in the laboratory.  How much of this experience and knowledge
is theirs to use in a commercial setting?     Is the industrial sponsor
justified in trying to prevent them from using some of this knowledge?

The students are generally free to use whatever knowledge they gained in
the laboratory.  The industrial sponsor would only be justified in
preventing them in two cases: patent infringement; and company confidential
information.  If the students want to continue using a patented technology, they
must attain the proper licenses for its use.  If the industrial sponsor shared
company confidential information --- trade secrets --- with the students, for example, 
with a non--disclosure agreement, the students must respect that confidential
With the exception of patent infringement, the students are free to use
whatever they learned in the laboratory. [3]

What are the rights and responsibilities of Zhu and his
colleagues? As a starting point to determine the scope of their
obligations to both the school and the sponsor, Zhu and his
colleagues should refer back to any agreements they signed before
beginning the research.  At MIT, for instance, anyone involved with
research must sign an agreement  to ``disclose promptly and assign
to MIT all rights to'' all intellectual property that they ``conceived, invented,
authored or reduced to practice.''  
This includes intellectual property ``developed
in the course of or pursuant to sponsored research, \dots resulting from the
significant use of MIT funds or facilities, \dots or  resulting from a work--for--hire
funded by MIT.''   Other research facilities probably have similar
documents. [2]

Student researchers are usually obligated not only to disclose all of their
findings to the school,  but also to turn over the rights to all of their findings.
They are, however, most likely allowed to retain copies of all such items for
their own personal use.  Furthermore, they may be obligated to report all additional
findings that result from their research in the lab.
Aside from their responsibility to the school, they are also responsible
for upholding any confidentiality agreement between the commercial
sponsor and the school regarding trade secrets or other proprietary
information the sponsor may have divulged before or since the
research began.  [3]

How would the scenario outlined above be treated differently if
Zhu and his colleagues were working in a commercial company doing the
same research and development work?  Had Zhu and his colleagues been
working in a commercial company they would most likely have signed a
non--compete or non--disclosure agreement upon being hired.  Since private
companies rely on trade secrets and patents to become and remain competitive,
they are generally very protective of their intellectual property.  Under such
agreements, any intellectual property that an employee discovers or creates while
working for a company, belongs to that company (with some exceptions).
Furthermore, an employee who leaves a job is often forbidden to go to work
for certain competitor companies until some predetermined time limit has
expired.  A former employee is also usually legally bound to waive rights to
intellectual property he creates or discovers for some predetermined time
after leaving a company.  Every company maintains different policies,
however, and just as with the research scenario, the rights and responsibilities
of Zhu and his colleagues would depend on the specifics of any agreements
that they signed upon or since entering employment. 

Ethics are very important for engineers: both legally and morally.   It is
important to be aware of legal requirements regarding professional
conduct and property rights.   Engineers have tremendous power to create;  it
is their moral obligation to use that power for good instead of evil.  Often
when a decision cannot be decided on legal ground alone, the engineer must search
his individual values and do what is right.  Is it right to help develop
chemical weapons?  Is it right to steal ideas?   Some of these decisions
have legal ramifications, you may get caught and punished.  In this sense, 
``getting caught'' can be devastating.  For example, if an engineer
unknowingly uses a patented algorithm in his software, his company could be
sued for millions and driven to bankruptcy.  

Some professional organizations have codes of ethical behavior.  For instance, IEEE
has  a ten--point ``Code of Ethics.''  Unfortunately, it leaves a lot
of uncertainty.  The only statement that applies to this situation
is: ``to avoid read or perceived conflicts of interest
whenever possible, and to disclose them to affected parties when they do exist.''  
It doesn't address any sticky intellectual property issues, only
mentioning: ``to credit properly the contributions of others.''  This leaves a lot
of uncertainty to the engineer.  He must take responsibility to investigate
the legal ramifications and to search his soul to find what is
morally right. [4]

To summarize, the three researchers are free to start their own company
and use the fruit of the research provided that they:  abide by any prior
agreements made by the sponsor and research lab; honor any proprietary
information provided by the industrial sponsor; and properly license
any patents related to the research.


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[1] Ng, Chin Yee.  ``Intellectual Property Rights and Responsibilities: A Student's Guide.''
\siteurl.  Summer 1996.

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[2] MIT Technology Licensing Office.  ``MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF 
\URL{http://web.mit.edu/tlo/www/ipguide.ica.html}.  \br May 1989.

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[3] Ng, Chin Yee.  ``Overview of MIT Intellectual Property Policies
from Intellectual Property Rights and Responsibilities: A Student's Guide.''
Summer 1996.

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[4] IEEE Ethics Committee.  ``IEEE CODE OF ETHICS.''  \br
August 1990.



[Zak Smith] [zak@computer.org] [/~zak/documents/college/ece350-ethics-paper/tex]
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