Hopeless student IP disputes

Complaints between PhD students and their supervisors seem to be on the rise. IP Draughts has been instructed on several in recent years, both on behalf of the student and on behalf of the supervisor and university (but not all at the same time!)

Memories of these cases came flooding back when IP Draughts read the recently-published court judgment in the case of Ukoumunne v The University of Birmingham & Ors [2020] EWHC 184. This was a preliminary decision in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (a low-cost court for smaller disputes) on whether to strike out the former student’s claims against various supervisors, the university and an academic publisher.

Nearly all of the claims were struck out, and those that remained were in the “last chance saloon” – the claimant, who was not legally represented, was required to be more specific as to what she was claiming.

An interesting feature of this case for IP Draughts is the discussion of the difference between plagiarism (copying ideas, not attributing them, etc, in breach of academic norms) and infringement of copyright (typically copying lines of text rather than underlying ideas, though occasionally the organisation and structure of a work can be the subject of a copyright claim). In IP Draught’s experience, academics are sometimes unclear about the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Plagiarism claims may be referred to an academic committee (eg if there is a claim of research misconduct) – this happened in the present case and the claims were dismissed.

Copyright claims are ultimately for a court of law to decide. The claimant in this case was unable to persuade the judge that she had an arguable case on copyright infringement. This claim was struck out, as were claims of negligence, racial harrassment, bullying and sex discrimination by the university .

The claimant also made allegations of breach of confidence in relation to her thesis, and breach of contract (seemingly the terms on which she became a PhD student, though this was unclear to the judge). On these allegations, the judge gave the claimant one last chance to improve her case (clarity of argument and supporting documents), failing which these claims would also be struck out.

IP Draughts wonders whether the claimant really thought she had a good legal case, or was just hoping for the best, and determined to pursue her dispute. He also wonders whether any attempt was made to negotiate a settlement or refer the matter to mediation. Sometimes, people just want to be heard, and there may be less expensive ways of enabling that to happen than going to court. The money saved might be better spent on a settlement with the student than on court fees and lawyers.

9 Comments

Filed under Employment, Intellectual Property, Legal Updates, universities

9 responses to “Hopeless student IP disputes

  1. Good grief. The biggest disagreement I had with my advisor in graduate school was over which pizza joint near the campus was best.

  2. Many cases would be cheaper to settle than to litigate, but in situations likely to recur, the real saving may be in defending so vigorously that copycats are deterred.

  3. It wasn’t entirely clear why she hadn’t sought legal advice. Every email from the Ipec clerk advertises IP pro bono and your firm and others have the expertise to help if there are funds. Increasingly students feel disappointed in their teaching and support and in social sciences PhD topics this seems more likely. Everything seems to have turned on her rejected final thesis submission- being repeatedly told “needs more amendment” after years of work must be very frustrating. The breach of confidence would likely be as difficult to prove as the copyright issues but a draft thesis must at least have the quality of confidence- but proving it was used by another expert in the same field likely impossible but you can see where the grudge could be born but the remedy is more likely to be found in prayer than in a court of law

  4. You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

  5. C D Daniel

    Sadly the bureacracy, lack of pragmatism and experience of management within Universities often lead to such outcomes

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