A university's altruism has forced the research councils to clarify their position on whether the rights to use intellectual property (IP) can be given away for the greater good.
The University of Glasgow has decided to grant licences allowing companies to use the IP generated by its academic research without paying royalties, if doing so delivers significant local socio-economic benefits.
However, questions have been raised about whether the approach breaches the policies of the research councils that funded the work.
The query was submitted to the councils under Freedom of Information laws, but their answers - which were posted on the website whatdotheyknow.com - were inconclusive.
Now a research council spokeswoman has confirmed to Times Higher Education that there is no conflict between the two policies and Glasgow's position is not in conflict with the research council.
"The relevant research grant condition states: 'It is the responsibility of the research organisation, and all engaged in the research, to make every reasonable effort to ensure that the outcomes obtained in the course of the research, whether patentable or not, are used to the advantage of society and the economy,'" she said. "The Glasgow scenario aims to stimulate local socio-economic benefits, so does not conflict with this."
The request for clarification followed a presentation by Kevin Cullen, Glasgow's director of research and enterprise, at a meeting of technology managers in Florida in February. At the conference, Professor Cullen sketched out a scenario in which a small local company approached the university saying that it wanted to develop a product line from university IP that would be highly risky in commercial terms.
The company could not afford to pay for the IP but the project would employ 50 staff in the city.
Professor Cullen told delegates that the question was whether Glasgow should offer the firm a royalty- free licence, given the absence of other interested parties.
The answer was that it "should do the deal, even though it will make you no money", he said. "We can argue that our contribution will be a local socio-economic benefit."
Professor Cullen told Times Higher Education that Glasgow's policy - which has been in place for two years and which it has not officially checked with the councils - could be applied to requests from companies throughout the UK, although it was easier to make the case for assisting Scottish companies, particularly those based in Glasgow.
He said that other universities had adopted similar policies, although they were in a minority, and added that Glasgow saw its contribution to the economy as "more holistic than simply making money out of commercialising IP".
"The example I gave in the Florida presentation was a stark choice between locking up the university's knowledge so no one got to use it, or a company using it to create 50 jobs," he said.
"People can debate whether that is fair on the university or fair on anyone else, but if an institution gets its knowledge out to be used for the benefit of the economy or society, then that manifestly is a good thing." He stressed that Glasgow made its decisions on a case-by-case basis on advice from a committee of experts.