Stealing One’s Own Work

Petr Taborsky was a college student with a part-time, on-campus job as a research assistant at the University of South Florida. In 1988, he made a fascinating discovery which had commercial implications for the treatment of wastewater. And when he patented it, he ended up with a strange reward: an 18 month jail sentence, including two in a maximum security prison requiring chain gang duties.

Taborsky, according to an interview he did with NPR, was a chemistry student at South Florida, helping researchers in a chemical engineering lab for $8.50 an hour. The project he was working on was funded by a utilities holding company in the area, and, when it appeared clear that the prescribed experiment would not yield useful results, the school and funding corporation decided to sunset the study. Taborsky, who had taken an interest in the subject, claimed that he obtained permission to continue some of the research. Thereafter, he discovered that if one took a certain material akin to kitty litter and superheat it to 800 degrees Fahrenheit, the material became very absorbent and able to treat sewage. This discovery, as one would correctly surmise, had incredible value.

And the University of South Florida wanted to own it. Arguing that the research was part of Taborsky’s contract under the project, the university laid claim to Taborsky’s findings. Taborsky took matters into his own hands, taking his five notebooks out of the research lab and into his own custody. But the university did not see this as a student simply taking what was his. As USF’s attorney told the Christian Science Monitor, “What he [Taborsky] did was steal property.” The university responded by pressing criminal charges against Taborsky for theft — and won.

Taborsky was ordered to return the notebooks and not use the data in lieu of, it seems, a prison sentence. But instead of following the court’s order, Taborsky did the exact opposite, and filed a patent to protect what he deemed to be his discovery. He was sent to prison where he worked on the aforementioned chain gang for two months, until he was moved to a minimum security facility to serve the rest of his sentence.

After his release, the governor of Florida offered to pardon Taborsky for his crime. Taborsky declined, noting that accepting a pardon comes with it the implication that he was truly guilty of stealing his own discovery — a charge he still denies.

Bonus fact: In the fall of 2010, the University of Florida (not South Florida) offered a course titled “21st Century Skills in Starcraft.” The course, described here (scroll down), was an 8-week, online-only class which used the video game to help develop “skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, resource management, and adaptive decision making.”

From the ArchivesAspirin (TM): How Bayer lost its intellectual property claims over the word “aspirin.”

Related: “From Patent To Profit: Secrets & Strategies For The Successful Inventor” by Bob Dematteis. 4.5 stars on 23 reviews.

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