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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Stolen Thesis Claim May Stick to Tech Group

(CN) - An engineering group may have infringed on a copyrighted thesis on robotic eye surgery by selling an article on the same subject, a federal judge ruled.

Former Johns Hopkins University grad student Rajesh Kumar sued the New York City-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., the world's largest professional association for technological advancement, in New Jersey last year.

The federal complaint stems from a doctoral thesis Kumar published 12 years ago: "An Augmented Steady Hand System for Precise Micromanipulation," which allegedly concerned how a surgical tool can be "manipulated cooperatively by a human user and a robot" during eye surgery known as retinal vein cannulation.

Kumar says that, although he registered his work with the U.S. Copyright Office in September 2001, the institute published an article describing "the same problem, experimentation, and solution" that occurred "at the same laboratory, using the same equipment as that in the thesis," as part of a conference on intelligent robots in 2003.

The article, which has allegedly been available for sale since 2003 or 2004 on the institute's publications database, copied specific text and graphics from Kumar's thesis, but failed to identify him as an author or correctly cite his writing, according to the complaint.

Once Kumar heard about the article in 2010, he and his lawyer allegedly notified the institute that the article infringed on his copyright.

Still the institute refused to take corrective action, prompting the lawsuit, Kumar says.

The institute moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that Kumar's thesis is not copyright-eligible, and that, regardless, the article is not substantially similar to it.

U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden refused to dismiss the complaint last month.

"Although legal conclusions like Kumar's assertion that his work is 'original' may be disregarded in evaluating whether a plaintiff has stated a claim, the institute concedes that 'the thesis as a whole is entitled to copyright protection,'" Hayden wrote. "Accordingly, Kumar has sufficiently pleaded his 'ownership of a valid copyright' for purposes of the motion to dismiss."

The judge tossed aside the claim that the article cites an uncopyrightable "idea" - defined by the 3rd Circuit as "the purpose or function" of Kumar's thesis - as opposed to a copyrightable "expression" - i.e., "everything . . . not necessary to that purpose or function."

"The institute's argument, in repeatedly invoking Kumar's use of terms such as 'system' in the complaint and in the thesis, relies too heavily on labels and ignores the nuanced nature of the idea/expression inquiry," the unpublished ruling states. "As Kumar succinctly puts it, '[o]n a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court cannot presume that there is only one way to express' the various content the article allegedly copies from the thesis."

Kumar has sufficiently pleaded that the article is substantially similar to his work to allege that "the institute trod on protectable grounds in publishing the article," according to the ruling.

Judge Hayden refused to award the institute attorneys' fees.

The institute boasts on its website more than 425,000 members across more than 160 countries.

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