Cambridge row over rights plan

August 2, 2002

Cambridge academics have pledged to scupper "unacceptable" plans by the university to make them hand over their intellectual property rights.

In a report this week, Cambridge's governing council and general board recommend that the university change its rules to ensure that it owns "all intellectual property generated by its employees in the normal course of their duties".

But staff say that ending the current ad hoc arrangements could ruin Cambridge's uniquely creative atmosphere, stifle innovation and demotivate staff.

Ross Anderson, a reader in security engineering, said: "We are going to stop this and it doesn't matter what it takes. It is an unacceptable change to our contracts of employment."

David Mackay, a reader in natural philosophy, said: "One of the reasons I accepted a job here was that Cambridge had a reputation for flexibility and allowing people to do what they want with their ideas."

Under the new policy, which is similar to rules adopted at Oxford University, staff and students will have to disclose inventions and give away rights to intellectual property from "work carried out using university facilities but with the assistance of funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and other university funds".

The university would own all intellectual property created after January 2003. Any income generated by the exploitation of ideas would be split between the inventor, his or her faculty and the university. When the income from inventions rises above £100,000, it would be split into equal thirds. With smaller sums, the inventor would receive the lion's share.

Currently, the university claims only the intellectual property generated by academics with external grant funding.

The report says that this position causes confusion. It says that without the specialist advice they will receive under the new policy, academics may be vulnerable to "predatory external parties".

A new clear policy would also enable those less entrepreneurially minded dons "to realise the value of their inventions".

The report acknowledges that many staff believe the current position has been beneficial, leading to the "Silicon Fen" phenomenon, where the university has attracted a cluster of high-tech businesses.

It has also led "to the university's ability to attract and retain academic staff".

But the report says that "this rationalisation is unprovable" and that "policy based on assertion and belief is hard to justify".

Dr Anderson said: "They claim that the link between the liberal intellectual property rules and our success at technology transfer is unprovable, yet it took me only a modest amount of work to find two papers that show a positive correlation between faculty incentives and the success of technology transfer."

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