Cambridge reforms IP rules

Academics support shakeup of policy governing intellectual property

By | December 14, 2005

Academics at the University of Cambridge have voted this week to approve a major overhaul of the university's intellectual property (IP) policy. The changes shift control of patenting away from individual researchers and into the hands of the university itself but specify that the academics own all other forms of IP.

The new rules state, among other things, that patents generated by internally funded research will now be owned by the university. They outline a sliding scale of reimbursement for inventors, starting at 90% of the first £100,000 in revenues and dropping to 34% after £200,000.

Of the nearly 1100 academics who took part in the ballot, which closed on Monday (December 12), 790 voted to support the new policy, 259 wanted an amended version, and 49 completely rejected it.

Under Cambridge's traditional IP policy, academics could file for their own patents. In 2001, those arrangements were altered so that IP created from externally funded research was claimed by the university, with the exception of "normal academic forms of publication." The university's IP regime is considered more liberal than those of other UK institutions.

The current changes extend that central control to internally funded research but specify the staff members' rights to copyright over other forms of IP, such as academic papers, literary works, trade secrets, and confidential know-how. "The aim was to provide clarity," said Tony Minson, a virologist and pro-vice-chancellor for planning and resources at Cambridge. "The situation was complicated in that we had an arrangement that left [intellectual property rights] out there in the hands of academics and students. That left what was not, in most people's view, a satisfactory arrangement."

Minson said the changes protect academic freedom, in particular the freedom to publish, and guarantees individuals ownership of copyright. The new regulations provide an equitable and flexible framework for all who are involved in academic work, he said.

Ian Leslie, the university's pro-vice-chancellor for research, said the new policy had been drafted in consultation with academics. "We want consistency and a structure in which we can assure that people can't go patenting things without us being able to ensure that everyone involved is recognized and rewarded. It's about striking the balance between transparency and freedom of actions," he toldThe Guardian newspaper.

However, the proposals did trigger some dispute among academics. The Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, a group opposed to the plans, warned that they would "discriminate against students and against technology subjects, harm academic freedom, and have a chilling effect on entrepreneurship."

Mike Clark, an immunologist in the university's department of pathology, was prominent among academics calling for the policy to be amended. "The new policy is significantly better than the policy we've had since 2001…but I think the new policy could have been better drafted," he told The Scientist. "I think it is deficient in certain areas."

Among his concerns are ambiguities in the new rules meant to ensure the university doesn't enter into contracts with companies for use of intellectual property against the wish of the academic. The university has promised to clarify those elements of the policy.

Clark also said the new policy may open the door to discrimination in the IP rights given to different university members. While the policy declares that members of academic staff have ownership of most of their IP, except for patents, the same does not apply to "academic related staff" such as administrators, museum curators, and librarians. The wording of the policy also deprives students of the same clear rights, he said.

Minson argued that the policy was designed specifically to deal with existing issues of inequality. "There was substantial inequality just depending on where the researcher's funding came from," he told The Scientist. The policy specifically refers to "staff" throughout as a way of avoiding disparity between different types of employee, he said.

The university is also willing to revisit the rules to reflect future changes in the IP environment, he said. "The idea that this policy is written in stone is madness."

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