Let's take their words on that

David Matthews reports on debate about whether claiming students' IP rights could halt plagiarism

February 23, 2012

A senior figure at Oxford Brookes University has suggested taking control of undergraduates' intellectual property rights to stop them selling their essays on the internet.

John Francis, director of research and business development, said that the market in essays was "quite difficult to control" and that the university currently had no "formal rights" to stop it.

The idea has sparked a debate on how to stop the sale of essays and has also drawn claims that any blanket ownership of students' intellectual property (IP) could be illegal.

Writing on JISCmail, an academic email discussion forum, Mr Francis said that an increasing number of students were selling their essays and that this could potentially damage the university's reputation.

"We have been considering ways to strengthen our position on the practice to prevent it," he wrote. "One way could be to claim ownership of all undergraduate and postgraduate IP. We only claim IP from PG [postgraduate] research students at the moment."

He said: "We don't think students should be selling their work for others to benefit fraudulently. In principle it is like selling any kind of product to someone who will misuse it. It is bad for our reputation potentially."

Philip Graham, former executive director of the Association for University Research and Industry Links, responded that "the easiest approach is that undergraduates own their own IP". He wrote: "In an environment where they are now asked to pay very hefty fees in some cases - they will fight hard to retain that right."

Mark Pearce, head of the intellectual property practice at law firm Dickinson Dees, told Times Higher Education that as student contracts were consumer contracts, they had to pass a "reasonableness test".

Taking control of undergraduates' intellectual property "simply isn't necessary to address plagiarism", he said, adding that if students were willing to sell their essays they would not be "terribly concerned" about breaking copyright law.

He said that a "small but significant" number of universities already owned IP rights to undergraduate and postgraduate essays, which in his view was legally "unreasonable".

A legal adviser from a university technology transfer office, who later asked not to be identified, responded to Mr Francis that it was "pretty difficult" to understand how the measure would be justified. "Any [other] move which would/could [be perceived to] restrict students' freedom, academic or other, will be leapt on by student bodies - some would say quite properly so."

Later in the email thread, Mr Francis said that he agreed with respondents on the "IP ownership perspective". He wrote: "That's why historically we don't claim ownership for taught students."

Mr Francis could not be contacted for comment.


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