The Nature of Property

Instead, most nanotechnology development is occurring with collaborations among multiple scientists and engineers in universities and companies, often with the support of funding provided by governments. In these kinds of scenarios, there are numerous parties who can legitimately claim that a particular invention would never have been developed without their contributions—each of the scientists and engineers in the collaboration may have contributed to the ideas that developed into the final product; the company or university may have contributed the tools and overhead that were necessary to develop the products, not to mention the salaries that they paid to finance the development; and governments may claim that the funds that they provided were instrumental in supporting the discoveries. How can ownership be allocated in these kinds of circumstances? What kinds of factors determine who will have the strongest claim, particularly if disputes arise among the parties?

The most fundamental rule of ownership for intellectual property is that ownership begins with the person who creates it. This is generally true irrespective of whether the intellectual property takes the form of an invention that results in a patent, is in the form of a creative work that results in a copyright, or has some other form. Once that intellectual property has been created, though, it is treated like almost any other form of property in terms of the ability to transfer ownership rights.

Property rights are often described as a "bundle" of rights. An effective analogy that relies on this description compares property rights with a bundle of sticks. Each of the sticks represents some particular right that can be separated from the bundle. Thus, for instance, an owner of a piece of land—"real property"—is able to grant a variety of different rights without transferring ownership of the land itself. She can grant logging rights that allow loggers to remove trees, she can grant mining rights to allow miners to remove minerals from the land, she can grant a leasehold interest that allows a tenant to take possession of the land, and so forth. Each of these rights can be thought of as a twig in the bundle that the landowner gives away in transferring a property right. But as long as the owner keeps the bundle, she remains the owner of the land.

Subject to a few regulations, the scope and nature of the various rights that can be granted are limited only by the imagination of the parties to the transaction. In some cases, the rights that are granted are transferable—the recipient can give the stick to someone else—while in other cases they are not. Some rights are of limited duration—the recipient must return the stick after a defined period of time—while others are perpetual. In many cases, some of these rights may be outstanding when the owner decides to transfer ownership of the property—when she hands over the bundle of sticks, there are still a few twigs outstanding so that the new owner is subject to some encumbrances on the property. One example of this could occur when a landlord sells an apartment building; each tenant's lease prohibits the new owner from evicting him as a trespasser until the terms of the lease have been satisfied (and that twig accordingly returned to the bundle).

These same principles apply to intellectual property. The owner of a patent or copyright can transfer certain limited rights to others without necessarily transferring ownership. Again, the scope and nature of the rights that can be transferred are wide. The right to use intellectual property is referred to as a "license" and can take the form of a right to make a product subject to a patent claim, perform a piece of music subject to a copyright, etc. These rights can be of limited duration or perpetual, they can be limited in geographical scope, they can be transferable or nontransferable, they can be exclusive or nonexclusive, and so on.

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