Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms
Rebuttal of the Vice-Chancellor's Arguments
At present, academics at Cambridge University own all the intellectual
property we create, with a few narrow exceptions. A policy
change proposed by Cambridge University's Vice-Chancellor
will reverse this; if it passes the Regent House, the University will claim
ownership of all our intellectual property, with a few narrow exceptions.
This will have serious consequences for academics, for
the student body and for the wider community.
In this document, I marshall and rebut the arguments used by the
Vice-Chancellor's faction for the change.
- `There is no evidence of harm.' The Vice Chancellor
originally argued that the link between liberal IP policies for academics at
MIT, Stanford and Cambridge and our success at technology transfer is `superficially
attractive, but is unprovable and a policy based on assertion and belief is
hard to justify'. However, there is a substantial economic literature
which studies precisely that. We have summarised it, and provided links to
the main papers, here. The strong
conclusion is that the link exists, and is important; the greater the extent
to which faculty members can profit from inventions, the more spin-out
companies are produced. The specific importance of liberal IP rules to the
growth of high-tech businesses around Cambridge is discussed in the standard
reference, the book by Segal,
Quince and Wicksteed - to the second edition of which the Vice Chancellor
himself wrote the foreword.
- `The government is making us do it.' This is untrue. I
raised it with the DTI and have an email from Stephen Timms, the minister for
e-commerce. He said `All universities are autonomous institutions and are
responsible for their position on IP ownership, though the DTI, through
publications such as "Managing Intellectual Property: A guide to strategic
decision-making in universities", has encouraged universities to have clear,
published policies regarding IP. For more information on "Managing
Intellectual Property: A guide to strategic decision-making in universities"
can be downloaded from
- `Our current policy is unclear.' This is also untrue. Our
current policy is that all IP is owned by the inventor, unless it arises in
the course of externally funded research. However, our technology transfer
people seem to like to represent the law as being much more complex than it
actually is, so that they can bully academics into handing over equity in
start-up companies in return for letters of comfort to investors. The remedy
for this to make both academics and investors more aware of the facts.
- `All research is teamwork, so all should share the
proceeds.' This argument was advanced by the Vice Chancellor to the BBC, and again by the
head of our medical school at the Regent House on the 16th October. The Vice
Chancellor said that "The university has a right to a share because I think
there are very few true individuals. Most people have to rely on others". This
may indeed be true of the work he did as a young researcher at IBM, but it is
not universally true. Most of my significant papers have been single-author
papers, and that is probably true for the median faculty member. We have no
objection to the proceeds of team research being shared among team members; we
do definitely object to an argument that since some research is teamwork, the
proceeds of all research must be taxed by the University.
- `The new policy will make us like MIT and Stanford.' This
was argued by the Vice Chancellor in the Times Higher Educational
SUpplement. It is simply wrong. At present, Cambridge faculty own all our
copyright plus the patent rights to all independent inventions, as faculty at
Stanford and MIT do. Under the proposed policy, the University would own
- `The new policy will make us like UCL and Oxford.' This is
also simply wrong. An attempt was made two years ago by the authorities at UCL
to own all copyrights generated by the faculty; it failed after furious
opposition from academics, and their Vice Chancellor eventually had to
resign. Oxford's claim to faculty copyrights is limited to databases and
software and even then only to those that are `reasonably
considered to have commercial potential'.
- `It doesn't matter who owns the patent, only that the work gets
exploited.' If this were true, then why is the University trying to
own all the patents? It is of course nonsense, for a large number of reasons.
Transferring ownership to the University will affect inventors adversely in
many ways, from depriving them of a legal right of veto over how their ideas
are used, to affecting their estates if they die while a patent is still in
force. It is particularly astounding that this argument is made by Hermann
Hauser; Hermann, do you mind passing me ownership of ARM's patent portfolio?
- `We will not take copyright in books.' The policy, if
approved by the Regent House, will enable the University authorities to take
copyright in all books based on lecture notes or other commissioned material,
and in all popular books, at any time in the future. The constitutional
history of the University warns us against giving away such powers. Once the
Regent House has given a power to the Council, it can only get it back by
Grace, and the Council controls the wording of Graces. This assurance must
therefore be seen as a tactical measure to divide and conquer; they will
appease the historians today while they take the engineers' patents, then
come back for the historians a few years later. Even if the book exemption
could be made inviolate for all future time, the University is still
claiming commissioned works, such as lecture notes, and all the other
copyright material we produce such as emails and lab notebooks. The only
acceptable policy on copyright is `we will not take copyright' - and that
must be the decision of the Regent House, not a privilege graciously
extended to us by the whim of Council.
- `The computer scientists are just being greedy by opposing
this.' It is true that a handful of computer scientists made money
during the bubble; but that was last century! In 2002, the most profitable
academic speciality is history; popular history books are marching off the
shelves. In a few more years, it will probably be someone else's turn. The
fact of the matter is that most computer scientists oppose the measure because
of the loss of autonomy that the growing IP bureaucracy will bring, and in
particular the proposal that all releases of software into the public domain
will have to be supervised by this bureaucracy.
- `We won't exploit something without the inventor's
approval.' Such assurances are cheap to make, but will not bind
future administrations, or companies to whom patents are subsequently sold. At
present, inventors have a veto because we own the patents, and can prevent
their exploitation by firms of which we disapprove by refusing to license them.
If the University were to take ownership of patents, and we did not have an
explicit and enforceable veto written into the enabling Grace, an important
element of professional and ethical autonomy would be lost.
- `We are not going to stop people making their software freely
available.' This is disingenuous. The Vice Chancellor
insists that the University supervise all free software releases. The
hidden subtext is that free software will have to be published uner the
BSD license, rather than the GPL license. This will appease big donors whodislike GPL'led software as
they are not allowed to simply incorporate it into their software. However,
it will prevent academics and computer officers from participating in
projects such as GNU/linux and Exim whose software is covered by the GPL.
This will make us an international laughing-stock.
- `The opposition is led by Ross Anderson, who discredited himself by
his position on Y2K.' I predicted that
Y2K would be a damp squib, after having helped the University comb through its
own systems and having found nothing that would have caused a disaster had it
been ignored. Presumably the authorities consider me a dangerous freethinker
for having bucked the trend. In any case, it is particularly obnoxious for the
authorities to use ad-hominem attacks in such a matter, as they take great
exception when senior officials are criticised in Regent House
The Discussion in the Regent House continues. It started on the 15th
October and was adjourned for a week when time ran out. The first
day's proceedings are reported by the BBC here.
So please turn up on the 22nd if you still want to say your piece.
For more information, please read our detailed analysis of the proposed
changes, and the main campaign web page.