Azara Blog: Cambridge University approves new IPR rules

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Date published: 2005/12/14

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Academics at Cambridge have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a change to the university”s intellectual property rules, in spite of warnings that the new regime could damage the institution”s position as a global leader in technological innovation.

Over 70 per cent of the 1,000 dons balloted backed proposals to give the university ownership of patents on inventions by research staff while securing the copyright for the inventors.

Supporters of the plan applauded what they described a new consensus, after five years of internal wrangling over the Cambridge intellectual property arrangements.

The university has traditionally given individual academics much more control over the use of their research than at other British institutions, and Professor Ian Leslie, pro-vice chancellor, said the new arrangements would safeguard that control.

Hermann Hauser, a director of Amadeus Capital Partners, the venture capitalists, said the business community in and around the city would welcome the attempt to update the rules.

"This is very advantageous for everybody because for the first time it brings clarity to the situation," he said. "Previously, you didn”t know who the stuff belonged to, and this is still one of the most generous IPR plans anywhere in the world."

But Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the computer laboratory, said those pushing for change had destroyed the unique advantages that led to the growth of a vibrant technology cluster around the university - the so-called "silicon fen".

"One of the things that made Cambridge special has died today," said Prof Anderson, who led the campaign against the proposals. He argued that Cambridge had managed to pull ahead of other leading British universities, including Oxford, in scientific innovation because a balance had been maintained between theorists and practitioners on the academic staff. Clawing back ownership rights and income for the central university could disrupt that balance by putting off inventors, he said.

"There are many other opportunities available for applied folk - and as academic salaries have fallen behind, keeping them depends on providing something extra."

He said the changes, which will allow individuals to take a much higher proportion of the income from externally-funded research when it is commercialised, would benefit medical research more than technology, changing the pattern of companies based in and around the town.

Business observers also criticised the "mood music", saying the university had allowed itself to be portrayed as "taxing the inventors" rather than arguing for a coherent central strategy on the commercial exploitation of research.

But Prof Leslie said the new rules would prevent disputes and would not lead to delays or overly-bureaucratic approaches to getting inventions to market. The proposals include, for example, incentives to the technology transfer office to improve its efficiency.

The university”s ruling body said it had promised academics concerned about the changes that the package of proposals would be amended later to clarify that inventions could only be patented with the consent of academics.

Well when the money men (e.g. Hauser) say it is good for everybody you can probably guarantee it is not. But only time will tell. With respect to these proposals, the university bureaucrats have done an extremely poor job explaining to the academics both what the implications are and what the up-side and down-side are.

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