Intellectual rights of way

March 24, 1995

The supposed "Battle with CBI on intellectual rights" (THES, March 17) provoked by the Higher Education Funding Council for England decision on GR (funding for collaborative research) is doubly unfortunate. First, it provides opportunities for confrontational rhetoric at a time when universities and companies need each other more than ever. But more important, by focusing on ownership and saying nothing about access rights and royalties, it diverts attention from the really important issue at stake when universities and companies collaborate in research.

As the HEFCE spokesperson recognised, the primary concern of a university must be to protect its freedom to carry out research in the future. Financial returns, though useful, are a secondary consideration. The implication of the GR policy that the future can be sold off for 5 per cent of the contract price (the premium HEFCE will pay to "eligible" contracts) puts one in mind of birthrights and messes of pottage in the scale of disproportion involved.

The GR rules fail to address this primary concern. Initial ownership of IPR merely defers the substantive negotiation. The GR rules place no obstacle in the way of assignments or exclusive licences being demanded and granted on any terms whatsoever. They only require that the company defer brandishing the big stick until after the university has become committed to the project. Whether this places universities in a stronger or weaker negotiating position is a moot point. The GR rules do not secure the key issue of future access, they do not even ensure that universities will get a financial return from their investment in research collaborations with industry. They are just another funding formula game to learn.

It is comforting, though, to know that away from the rarified atmosphere of HEFCE and CBI debates, universities and companies will continue to negotiate. The rumpus over GR will be quickly forgotten. With luck, it will have done a little to raise general awareness among university staff that intellectual property is a real and important issue, and within companies that universities too have a legitimate stake in the future.

The careful balancing of university and company interests will have to continue to be negotiated case by case. By a happy coincidence, many of those from both the university and CBI camps who were engaged in the GR issue are working together on a good practice document that may advance mutual understanding by explaining the issues.

Richard Tomlin

Director of research services

University of Newcastle

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