Cambridge to ballot on IP reforms

October 28, 2005

The latest bid to reform the rules on how Cambridge University academics make money from their ideas could destroy trust between staff and their postgraduates, critics of the plans claimed this week.

As Cambridge confirmed that the controversial reforms would go to a ballot of the university's community of 3,000 scholars in December, opponents of the plans launched a last-ditch campaign to have them overturned through a series of wrecking amendments.

Cambridge plans to tighten its rules on intellectual property rights (IPR), in line with other universities, to ensure that academic research is exploited more efficiently and that the university is better able to share in the spoils of its academics' innovations.

The opponents, led by computing professor Ross Anderson and three fellow members of Cambridge's governing council, said the changes would have a "chilling effect" on entrepreneurship because they would remove academics'

right to pursue their own patents. They also said that the reforms were unfair to graduate students.

The concerns have been backed by the university's graduate student union, which confirmed this week that its representative on the governing council refused to endorse the proposals.

Professor Anderson said: "The policy discriminates against students. It gives them extra obligations that mean they will always come off second best if they are pitted against staff over IPR. We should all be working together, and such hierarchical regimes are poisonous."

Professor Anderson's Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms has tabled a series of amendments to the proposed reforms, which are in their third draft after three years of internal debates.

He said that the reforms would force students to give up their claim to intellectual property if staff members claimed it was in competition with their own IP.

"We want to amend the policy so as to treat staff, students, visitors and others equally," Professor Anderson said.

Alex Broadbent, president of Cambridge's graduate union, said that the plans to treat students differently were "a real concern" and added that the union was opposed to any measure that offered less protection to the individual researcher. He said that the default position that the university owned the right to exploit research "cannot be justified".

Ian Lesley, pro vice-chancellor for research at Cambridge and the architect of the reforms, said that the changes would give students greater protection than staff.

"The rules would mean that all staff who seek to patent their ideas must do it through the university, but students who create independently have the right to seek patents themselves," he said.

He said that students working in collaboration with other students or staff would go through the university for patents to avoid disputes over ownership with people who had different funding sources. It would help avoid joint-ownership rows and "prevent the anarchy that can happen in cases of multiple inventors", he said.

Another objection to Cambridge's plans is that while the university would derive greater benefit from staff inventions and innovations, it could not touch copyright, which would still be owned by academics.

Professor Anderson said: "Celebrity historians continue to make millions from TV and book deals, while the technologists have to bow and scrape to the university to exploit their ideas."

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