Cambridge outrage ill-founded

September 13, 2002

Far from stifling invention, Cambridge will thrive under a unified IPR policy, insists Alec Broers

In the past, Cambridge University has been criticised for failing to commercialise its best inventions through not having a professional approach to intellectual property rights. At the same time, it has also received plaudits for creating successful partnerships with business and developing the Cambridge phenomenon, the regional economic boom built on innovation and entrepreneurialism.

The university's recent plans to introduce a unified policy on intellectual property rights for the primary reason of stimulating spin-offs have been greeted with a predictable mixture of relief and outrage, depending on how people view Cambridge's success in this field so far.

Those feeling relieved have long felt that the university has not exploited its entrepreneurial assets successfully or has frittered them away in poor deals. The outraged believe that a statutory intellectual property rights policy will harm creativity, contribute to the brain drain and destroy the Cambridge phenomenon. They also object to the university owning "their" intellectual property and taking a share of income that they believe to be wholly theirs.

There is also perhaps a third group of people who have not yet made up their minds but believe that people who make money by commercialising inventions that have been achieved using government grants and university labs should give something back.

Having worn numerous hats - besides vice-chancellor, I have been a research engineer, head of a department, head of an IBM research group, inventor and industrial director - I have heard the arguments from every angle, and I strongly favour the proposals. So let's look at the arguments:

1. Will the new policy harm the Cambridge phenomenon?

The evidence does not stack up. The institutions in the world with the best record of entrepreneurship (Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the leading UK universities (University College London, Oxford, Imperial College, London) all have more restrictive intellectual property policies than those we propose. Their entrepreneurial activities have not suffered as a result. It is also important to be realistic about the role the university has played in the Cambridge phenomenon - it is important, but it could do much more.

2. If the university owns its academics' intellectual property rights, will they lose the incentive to be inventive?
No. The academics will still get the lion's share of income (90 per cent up to £20,000). After that, a sliding scale applies. At the very least, they will get a third of the income, with the university and their department sharing the rest. This will justify continuing university investment in patent, business and copyright advice.

3. Will it stop academics putting free software on the web?
No. The proposals are not designed to inhibit the publication of public-domain software. By and large, the inventor is best placed to know when to give away software, but the university's technology-transfer office is still critical in overseeing the contract.

4. What about the danger of a brain drain?
I would like to know where they would go - even MIT and Stanford have more restrictive intellectual property rights policies than those we propose. If some academics pursue an industrial career, they may earn more, but if they think that any company will give them a third of the value of any intellectual property rights they generate, they are in for a big shock.

Sir Alec Broers is vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

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