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  • Writer's pictureAshleyW.

Did Watson and Crick Commit Intellectual Property Theft against Dr. Rosalind Franklin?

Let me begin by saying that I am merely presenting an organized opinion on the matter of if Dr. James Watson and Dr. Francis Crick committed Intellectual Property Theft against Dr. Rosalind Franklin. I'll begin by defining the legal term "theft". Cornell law and Britannica and the Legal dictionary define theft as the generic term for all crimes in which a person intentionally takes personal property of another without permission or consent and with the intent to convert it to the taker's use (including potential sale) [1]. Essentially, individuals intentionally take materials from another without their consent for personal gain. Intent in Dr. Watson and Dr. Cricks case could be determined by motive.

Now, to address the question of motive, I would ask if Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick could have created their model in 1952-1953 without Dr. Franklin's notes and unpublished works? The purpose of the question is to bring light to the fact that Watson and Crick were at a standstill in their work and needed Franklin's assistance, notes and photo 51 to move forward. Some accounts state Watson and Crick actually contacted her to review and approve of the initial (1951) and final (1953) models they proposed for DNA structure (she reject the first) [2]. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines to authorship are very clear in that they stress the types of authorship offered should be correlated to the amount/type of contribution any individual makes to the final work [3]. Based on experimental work alone, she should have been given authorship.

A-Form DNA produced from dehydrated sample preparation and B-Form DNA ("Photo 51") from hydrated sample preparation produced by Dr. Rosalind Franklin. Photo 51 indicated the natural from of DNA is helical. Photo source:

What is Intellectual Property? The NIH Glossary of Commonly Used Terms in Research Ethics defines intellectual property as follows[4]:

Intellectual property: legally recognized property pertaining to the products of intellectual activity, such as creative works or inventions. Forms of intellectual property include copyrights on creative works and patents on inventions.
-Glossary of Commonly Used Terms in Research Ethics

In addition, there is also a requirement of novelty for intellectual property. Watson most certainly knew that an accurate proposal of the structure of DNA would be a novel contribution to STEM (He certainly made strong claims to this in his memoir, The Double Helix, along with defaming the character of Dr. Franklin) [5].

Who owned the work? Technically, because Franklin left the institution in March 1953, Kings College owned the work [6]. How did Watson and Crick obtain Franklin's notes and Photo 51 (taken in May 1952) to publish in April 1953? Wilkins, her office associate shared them. He shared photo 51 with Watson and Crick between January-February 1953 before she left Kings College and obtained it from Gosling's graduate student research (Franklin's Graduate student) [7]. Did Wilkins contribute to Franklin's work? No. Wilkins admitted Rosalind worked independently of him [2,7]. The Medical Research Council (MRC ) report of 1952 that contained her unpublished findings on A and B form DNA was provided to Watson and Crick by a Kings College MRC committee member, Max Perutz [7]. The report contained Franklin's "quantitative measurements for the interphosphate distances and discussed the external placement of the phosphates[8]." This was stated twice in the 1953 publication by Watson and Crick as their own idea in their landmark paper, "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid[9]."

"Each chain loosely resembles Fur-berg’s2 model No. 1 ; that is, the bases are on the inside of the helix and the phosphates on the outside. The configuration of the sugar and the atoms near ft is close to Furberg’s standard configuration , the sugar being roughly perpendicular to the attached base. There is a residue on each chain every 3-4 A. in the z-direc-tion. We have assumed an angle of 36 between adjacent residues in the same chain, so that the structure repeats after 10 residues on each chain, that is, after 34 A. The distance of a phosphorus atom from the fibre axis is 10 A. As the phosphates are on the outside, cations have easy access to them."
-Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid

The report was not cited. Today we emphasize good citation methods and collaboration. I agree ultimately this is an issue of rightful authorship, but I also do agree that this could be a matter of IP theft based on the definitions. The case for plagiarism with regard for the MRC report could most certainly be made. Plagiarism can be defined as follows [4]:

Plagiarism: misrepresenting someone else’s creative work (e.g. words, methods, pictures, ideas, or data) as one’s own.
--Glossary of Commonly Used Terms in Research Ethics

The contents of the MRC report were not stolen but they were not properly cited. If the account I've cited is accurate, Photo 51 was stolen intellectual property. It was the result of a method of sample preparation Franklin created to get clear images of B form DNA. In Watson and Crick's possession, it led to an academic gain. Wilkins is could also bee seen as the perpetrator of IP theft for Photo 51.

I would hope Universities would use this case as a catalyst to start a conversation to address ways they can protect the contributions their students and faculty make to STEM. Regardless of the academic status, students and faculty work within the Univeirtsy to develop and to grow their STEM careers. To be successful and to be competitive, students and faculty, especially those within minority groups, must have all of their work credited. How can Universities and Departments help their faculty and students protect their work? Educate. Researchers of all levels should be taught of how they can protect their work. Apply for patents, publishing, or request for copyright licensing. If you write code scripts for program development, statistical analysis, or bioinformatics, consider publishing the method prior to making your GitHub accessible to the public or applying for a patent for the code [10]. You can also annotate your scripts with your name and contact information. This is a subtle reminder to users of your code that it was created by someone else. Understand, protections for code written for Free Open-Source Software, are not available. Control distribution of research. Departments and labs should be encouraged to make using material transfer agreements (MTAs) the norm. Develop a plan. Universities can also develop and encourage IP protections for work done by students and faculty at their institutions. Give credit. Educate researchers on good citation practices. Initiate collaboration. Help researchers to formulate collaboration agreements.



1. Definition for Theft: theft | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute (

theft | Wex | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute The generic term for all crimes in which a person intentionally takes personal property of another without permission or consent and with the intent to convert it to the taker's use (including potential sale).

1.1. Alt Source: Hill, Gerald N., and Kathleen Hill. Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary. Berkeley, CA: Nolo, 2009. Print.

2. The Secret of Phot 51: Documentary: "Secret of Photo51". Nova. 2003. Film.

3. NIH Authorship Guidelines: 2010_12 authorship summary_7-magenta (

Contributions Authorship?

4. NIH Ethics Definitions: Shamoo AE and Resnik DB, Responsible Conduct of Research, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015

5. Watson, James D., 1928-. The Double Helix : a Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. London :Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.

6. Garon, Jon M., Ownership of University Intellectual Property (June 4, 2018). 36 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L.J. 635 (2018), Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3, 2018, Available at SSRN:

7. The events in question: The DNA Riddle: King's College, London, 1951-1953 | Rosalind Franklin - Profiles in Science (

8. : Physics Today 56, 3, 42 (2003); doi: 10.1063/1.1570771

9. Watson, J., Crick, F. Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. Nature171, 737–738 (1953).

10. Patenting Bioinformatics: A landscape of bioinformatics patents - Garnering of IPR in the field of bioinformatics - ScienceDirect

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