Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms

IP Ballot - Vote for the Amendments!

See press coverage in the FT, the Telegraph, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Times Higher Education Supplement (requires free trial registration) and Computing. There was also earlier coverage in Varsity, the Times Higher, and on BBC4.

See our Rebuttal of the Council flysheets, our support from the AUT and the discussion list!

Academic staff and students should have the right to decide whether and how to make research results public, subject to any agreements we have made in advance with research sponsors. However, on the 5th October, the Council proposed an IP Policy which gives the University the right to make agreements on IP with sponsors without our prior consent. There are several recent incidents that make this hard to accept.

The Council proposes to settle such disputes by taking power to the centre; we propose to give power unambiguously to staff and students. The issue will be decided by a ballot during the first two weeks of December. If passed in their present form, the Regulations will also discriminate against students and against technology subjects, harm academic freedom, and have a chilling effect on entrepreneurship. We drafted a flysheet supporting the amendments. Supporters of the Council's policy circulated a number of flysheets containing arguments that misrepresent the effects of either the Council proposal, the amendments, or both. We therefore drafted a second flysheet to set the record straight. Flysheets will be circulated with the ballot papers at the end of November.

Here are the Regulations as we propose to amend them. The Council's text is in black while our amendments are in green (the italics and the black strike-outs are the changes made by the Council since the Third report was originally published; see here for their online version). The problems we're fixing are briefly as follows.

There has been some overly enthusiastic use of the University's chain of command for campaigning by the Council's supporters. See for example this email circulated to heads of department in the physical sciences and, through them, to many voters, asking them to sign one of the Council flysheets. Our voting mechanisms are designed to give rough equality of arms to the Council and its opponents, whoever they might be on the issue of the day: any flysheet signed by ten or more voters is circulated with the ballot papers. Asking line management to gather support for a ballot may not be forbidden explicitly by Ordnance, but has led to protests. If your feel it was inappropriate for Authority to canvas support in this way, we suggest you vote for the amendments instead when your ballot paper arrives.

Show your support by linking to this page:


The fundamental question underlying IP policy is this. Is Cambridge University a community of scholars, or a centralised corporation run by professional managers? Historically we followed the former model, and with great success. Recently there have been reforms pushing towards the latter. The attempt to centralise ownership and control of IP is one of those reforms.

Mike Clark has a history of intellectual property at Cambridge; here is a summary. For many years the University adopted a laissez-faire approach to IP; staff and students who invented useful things just filed patents, or started companies, or put software they wrote into the public domain. This was formalised in our 1987 policy which is widely acknowledged to have been one of the sources of the Cambridge Phenomenon.

However, a reform in 1999 created a Research Services Division that set out to build an empire out of commercialisation. In March 2001, the Council passed the now notorious Grace 6 under which all IP created by externally-funded researchers is claimed by the University, with the exception of `normal academic forms of publication'. No-one seems to have noticed this or objected to it at the time; it went through as routine business. In July 2002, the Council tried to extend these provisions to tenured academics, and there was a revolt.

The effect of taking `all IP' from academics is dramatic, and has been resisted also in other Universities where the authorities have tried it, such as UCL and Melbourne. For example, if the University owns the copyright in a popular book that I write, they not only get royalties but also the ability to forbid its publication. The same may apply to a talk I give that embarrasses some powerful interest. For this reason, academic ownership of copyright has always been seen as essential for basic freedom.

A second cluster of issues relate to the public domain. Many academics publish useful material - from software to genome sequence data - for others to use as they see fit. One effect of Cambridge's claiming IP in externally funded research since 2001 is that affected research staff and students who placed such material in the public domain in good faith, did not in fact have the legal ability to do so. Cambridge's IP claims thus pollute the public status of a number of important projects, which potentially include major genomic databases and popular free software products. A malicious company that wished to undermine free software might buy up Cambridge's residual rights, perhaps without RSD even realising their intentions. The SCO lawsuit shows what might happen. EU proposals to criminalise all IP infringement with commercial effects will mean that, in future, a malicious company would not even have to buy the residual copyrights from RSD; the fact that some code infringed Cambridge's copyright could be enough to launch a prosecution.

A third bundle of issues concerns the practical scope of claiming `all IP except normal academic forms of publication'. It covers everything from musicians' compositions through archaeologists' catalogues and scientists' lab notebooks to everyone's email archive. If the claims were ever asserted, job mobility would be seriously impaired. The university has said that it would not assert such claims; in that case the policy should have been drafted to exclude them.

In any case, there was an outcry against the 2002 IP report. There was a stormy Discussion in the Regent House on the 15-22 October 2002. Council then set up a committee to think about the problem, and its report in August 2003 led to a Second Report on IP on 26 March 2004 followed in turn by a Discussion at which most speakers were still hostile. A little-changed Third Report in May 2004 led to a further Discussion, at which the Pro-Vice-Chancellor proposing the policy, Ian Leslie, admitted that the University would probably not make a lot of money from it. Finally the Vice-Chancellor used her majority on Council to force the matter to a vote in the Regent House.

For further, more detailed background, here is our initial reaction from 2002; and a more detailed analysis with links to the press coverage at the time and to academic research on the effectiveness of technology transfer that underlines the effectiveness of our 1987 policy.

Finally, there is a mailing list you can join, and there is also some discussion of the issue on the ucam.change.governance newsgroup.

IP Ballot - Vote for the Amendments!

For more on the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, and more links, see our old web page.