The debate on intellectual property rights convulsing Cambridge University is more than a storm in a fenland teacup. And it doesn't just concern scientists.
The wording of the proposals under consideration claims copyright to all work produced by academic staff that doesn't fall into the category of "normal academic forms of publication". This presumably includes any book that might be categorised as non-academic - for example, popular textbooks, commercially produced biographies and histories and almost anything published for profit - not to mention radio and television broadcasts and articles in the press.
At the moment, Cambridge says it wants only patent rights. But once basic ownership of IPR is established, the university will have every incentive to extend it from patents to copyrights. For the roots of the row lie in the financial crisis that is affecting almost every university in the land. Even under the present system, Cambridge says it makes £1 million a year from IPR, showing that income can be shared without rights being claimed. It is not surprising it wants more - and where Cambridge leads, others will follow. This will reduce pressure on the government to boost university funding, so the Patent Office is busy advising universities to increase their stake in the IPR.
Academics too are forced to augment their government-funded income from private sources. Measured against the national average, academic salaries have declined by about 40 per cent during the time I've been in the profession. The freedom to make up the difference has had major benefits for the economy. One study after another has shown that the "Cambridge phenomenon", which has spawned hundreds of science-based companies, many of them highly profitable, has occurred not least because of the incentives provided by the university's liberal rules on IPR. If the university takes away up to two-thirds of income earned by its staff in this way, the incentives are gone. No one, least of all those who invest in such ventures, is going to trust a cumbersome, rule-bound and commercially inexperienced university bureaucracy to take the same risks and put in the same quality of work.
It is not just about money but also about fundamental freedoms. Not everyone who pioneers a commercially viable science-based project does so purely for profit. Geneticists who have fought to stop human genes being patented are an obvious case in point. Supposing an academic develops a cure for Aids and wants to make it available in the third world. Won't such altruism become impossible once the university owns the rights to drugs developed by its staff? And what if a university sold its IPR to a commercial enterprise? Wouldn't the independence and autonomy of scientific research be fatally compromised?
Not so long ago, I wrote a book based on an expert report I submitted to the High Court in a well-known libel case; four publishers turned it down for fear of a defamation suit by the defeated claimant in the case. Though I like to think it is a work of scholarship, it certainly was not a "normal academic form of publication", so under the present proposals, its copyright would be owned by Cambridge University. It is highly unlikely under those circumstances that it would ever have seen the light of day.
No one could object to universities claiming copyright in some kinds of work produced by their staff. But it is vital for all of us that these remain carefully defined exceptions in a basic set of rules that, as in most places at present, give the fundamental IPR in patents and publications to the staff who produce them.
Richard J. Evans
Professor of modern history, Cambridge University
* Richard J. Evans's Telling Lies About Hitler is published by Verso. He will be hosting a debate on intellectual property at: www.thes.co.uk/commonroom