March 31, 2014 10:00:19 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers have extended trade-secret protections to universities and community colleges by exempting materials tied to any commercial, scientific or technical research from the state's Open Records Act before the research is published.
Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 116 on March 19. It becomes law July 1.
Rep. Nolan Mettetal, chairman of the House Universities and Colleges Committee and author of the bill, said the loophole in the public records law was closed because companies have at times used public-records requests to try to obtain details of research underway at colleges.
"We just don't want the theft of intellectual properties. This research means a great deal for our state and nation," said Mettetal, a Republican from Sardis.
Higher education officials say the law will protect research from competitors.
David Shaw, vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State University, says he and other academics had thought research already was offered protection under the existing law.
"We believe it was purely an oversight. It had not come to our attention until last year when we saw in some trade publications that the issue was being raised in other states. When we saw it, we decided we needed to be proactive in protecting our people," Shaw said.
Shaw, who also is chairman of the Mississippi Research Consortium, said the law gives Mississippi universities and community colleges the same advantage afforded faculties in many other states.
The consortium includes Mississippi's four research universities -- Mississippi State, Jackson State, the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi.
It also includes the University of Mississippi Medical Center, NASA in Hancock County, the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg and the Mississippi Department of Information Technology.
There is no shortage of research going on at Mississippi universities.
For decades, USM has been home to one of the nation's leading polymer science programs. Its work with plastics has led to numerous patents and applications now used by industry.
Mississippi State University and Hinds Community College are involved in programs related to unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones. Mississippi State's program is research and development. Hinds has a program designed to train students to operate the drones.
Ole Miss operates the country's only legal marijuana farm. The Marijuana Project provides marijuana by the bale to licensed researchers throughout the nation.
Ole Miss' Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences was established in 1964 to discover and disseminate knowledge of natural drug products, develop and commercialize new products, improve public health and stimulate the economy.
Among research programs at Jackson State is one on diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma. Funding came from the National Institutes of Health to Jackson State's Minority Institutions Center for Environmental Health.
"All the universities have research and ideas that we want to make sure are properly protected," said Shaw.
Shaw said when the research could develop into patents and new companies the schools are mindful of not exposing that material to the Public Records Act.
Jeanni Atkins is executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, which, along with others, has lobbied the Legislature for improvements to open records laws. She said exempting academic research that has not yet been published protects intellectual property rights to the ideas and data collected.
"It is reasonable, in my view, that academic research be protected while it is in the stage of being developed so that others cannot take this information in a draft stage and use it for their own purposes," Atkins said.
"Once published copyright and intellectual property law would then protect the person or institution's rights to the final product. This is what the legislation is designed to do."