Intellectual challenge

May 4, 2001

Universities need better support networks if they are fully to exploit their intellectual property rights, argues Graham Christ.

Previous attempts to promote the exploitation of intellectual property in the United Kingdom have not always met with success and the number of patents filed by public-sector bodies remains low compared with other countries.

The difficulties are diverse, but one of the problems is the requirement set out in two recent policy papers on intellectual property rights - the 1992 Cabinet Office report on intellectual property and the present government's white paper on excellence and opportunity - require that intellectual property policy should not undermine the sector's primary purpose. This is a difficult balancing act, requiring an understanding of both scientific and commercial culture.

The difficulty begins with defining intellectual property and how it relates to the public sector. Much is made of patenting, specifically of scientific ideas, but universities are full of departments producing ideas. Recent developments in multimedia and the continuing excellence in design departments suggest intellectual property potential. Such a broad spectrum of innovation cannot neatly fit into one formula.

The Patent Office provides information and links on its website, but scientists and designers are not experts in intellectual property. They need training to understand the role it should play in their creative thinking in a way that does not impinge on academic freedom.

This should not just be the preserve of university employees, but also students. The 1992 paper recognised the importance of "demystifying the intellectual property system" in schools, colleges and universities, but a proposal to teach school students studying technology about the concept never got past the drafting stage.

The paper also recognised that "graduates emerging from higher and further education with science or engineering degrees tend to be unfamiliar with intellectual-property matters".

But it is not just science and engineering students who need to be taught about intellectual property. Arts and computing students are also likely to produce designs that could be commercially important.

What must be remembered is that intellectual property is a diverse and complicated subject. Raising awareness not only means providing the skills to be able to recognise the commercial potential of students' work, but also the intellectual property network. For universities, this must entail administrative support. University employees and students should have access to a support mechanism that can evaluate ideas or research results and how they should be exploited.

The excellence and opportunity white paper provides examples of best practice, many of which suggest working in partnership. This can help in identifying commercial potential and in applying for rights and spinning-off companies. But not all universities can negotiate such a partnership and problems with charitable status might mean they have to form a holding company. For these universities, an understanding of intellectual property and related networks is fundamental.

A successful network must provide an environment in which academics and students can acquire support and practical advice, and where the university's own interests are protected.

It should also be a mechanism for encouraging commercial thinking without jeopardising academic freedom. Serious attention should be given to who owns what, particularly where students are concerned, and how the intellectual property obtained will be monitored. Financial arrangements, such as contracts for joint ventures, all need to be considered.

It should not just be univer-sities involved in high-tech programmes that are encouraged to think more actively about the commercial potential of their research and ideas. But without putting in the foundations, both for students and for employees, the government's aims of promoting this potential are not going to be realised. This much is clear from the 1992 paper results.

Only once these are in place might we see an effective interface between managing intellectual property and achieving the primary function of research.

Graham Christ is a scientist and lawyer who recently completed an MPhil in intellectual property rights and appropriability in plant biotechnology at Sussex University's science policy research unit.

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