Laureate warns over IP reform

November 25, 2005

Sir John Sulston has criticised Cambridge's attempts to 'exploit' ideas 'as far as possible'. The university insists change is essential. Jessica Shepherd reports

A Nobel prizewinner has attacked Cambridge University for what he calls its "misguided" plan to reform intellectual property rights.

Sir John Sulston, a Cambridge alumnus and honorary fellow of Pembroke College, fears the reforms will end the institution's aim of "freely promulgating knowledge".

The proposed reforms have angered many Cambridge academics as they would give the university ownership of all IP. Academics would receive a share of any profits. Cambridge's 3,000 scholars are considering the reforms in a ballot. There is expected to be a decision next month.

Sir John, who won a Nobel prize in 2002 for mapping the human genome - our genetic instructions for life - believes the changes would curb academic freedom. He said: "I think academics should be encouraged to place their findings in the public domain as much as possible.

"But the document on the reforms warns academics against freely publishing their work.

"The mark of a good university, rather than a money-grabbing institution, is one that realises that lecture materials and research should be in the public domain.

"Cambridge's proposals would amount to lumping all IP together and the university exploiting its academics' ideas as far as possible. This is the wrong way to go.

"Where research has led to discovery, information should be freely available. The loser in all of this is the free exchange of information.

"This may even prohibit some academics from doing research because they won't want interference from the university."

Opponents of the changes, led by computing professor Ross Anderson and three fellow members of Cambridge's governing council, have staged a series of campaigns to overturn the proposals.

Professor Anderson said: "If these reforms go through, IP generated in Cambridge will be controlled by university administrators rather than by its creator.

"Cambridge would swap one of the most liberal rules on IP of any British university for one of the most oppressive anywhere.

"There are grave implications for academic freedom, for faculty recruitment and retention, for students, for colleges, and for the local economy. We might as well all go and work in a bank-type environment and earn much more money.

"Cambridge is the way it is because its academics have retained the rights to things they invent. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University have resisted the changes, why can't Cambridge?

"This is a power grab by senior management and will damage the entrepreneurial spirit of the university."

But the architect of the reforms, Cambridge's pro vice-chancellor for research, Ian Leslie, said the changes would create consistency and prevent disputes between individuals.

He said: "Research that isn't externally funded, for example research that does not have a grant, would be brought into line with these reforms.

"It would make things more consistent.

"We are also trying to prevent disputes between individuals in the courts.

We are not trying to take control of how things are exploited."

Until now academics have seen Cambridge as a bastion of freedom in terms of its intellectual property rules.

Most universities own their academics' intellectual property but give them a share of the revenue made from an invention or discovery. Oxford University owns inventions from research, but not books, articles or lecture notes. The university shares the revenue on a sliding scale with its academics.


At present, Cambridge owns none of the intellectual property of its tenured academics but under the proposals:

  • Cambridge would own all the intellectual property of its academics who are externally funded. This means an academic whose salary is paid by money that comes from one of the research councils or an organisation such as the Wellcome Trust
  • Academics would then receive between 33 and 85 per cent of the profits depending on the part they play in exploiting their discoveries
  • Some academics would be prevented from freely distributing their work without the intrusion of the university
  • Cambridge would also remove the right of an inventor at the university to patent their invention
  • Big businesses that invest in the university would be able to have the first refusal of patents without academics' consent.

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