The contract between universities and academics has often involved low pay and ill-defined responsibilities. But one of the minor perks was the off-chance of vast wealth from some invention or discovery that might arise from one's research.
Now the University of Cambridge is tightening its approach and stands to gain significant sums from major pieces of intellectual property produced by its staff. In many ways, the deal is a good one. Academics get most of the first £100,000 any invention brings in. Beyond that they still get a third. In the private sector, a discovery on this scale would bring in little more than a handshake from the boss.
But a university taking a cut of this size has to provide something in return. The main thing it must guarantee is active management and marketing of patents.
More significant is the objection that Cambridge's previous free-and-easy approach to intellectual property has encouraged the powerful innovation machine behind the new jobs and companies that make up Silicon Fen. But if public money and a public university have helped create this bonanza, it should be possible to keep it going if the university knows its business and does not get too greedy. Start-ups might even benefit from having a more solid idea of how much it would cost them to get their big idea off the ground. An academic whose idea is developed by the university will also expect its insurance policies and safety systems to cover the research that led to it, with no arguments after the fact about whether a researcher was working for the university or not at some particular moment.
But perhaps the most ominous part of these proposals is that university managers might be tempted to look more widely at the semi-detached income staff are bringing in. Cambridge's plans do not cover income from books, let alone films. Professors of cosmology and medieval literature create few valuable patents, but, given the chance, Cambridge would not refuse Stephen Hawking's book royalties, while Oxford could have got many new buildings from the millions generated by its former professor J. R. R. Tolkien.