Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms

31st March 2004 - today sees the publication of a draconian intellectual property policy, which will significantly curtail academic freedom at Cambridge. It is scheduled for a Discussion in the Regent House on the 11th May, followed by a vote. Diarise this; we have to defeat it.

Background - the IP Dispute at Cambridge

Until 2001, the copyrights and other intellectual property rights in academic work at the University belonged (with a few narrow exceptions) to the people who did the work. In 2001, a policy change was made for staff funded by research contracts: all their intellectual property rights (with a few narrow exceptions) now belong to the University. This passed unremarked and, initially, unenforced. In 2002, the Vice-Chancellor proposed to extend this expropriation to tenured academic staff as well.

This time, people took note. We set up the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms and produced an analysis of the likely effects. At a Discussion in the Regent House in October 2002, the great majority of speakers expressed outrage. A speech by Tom Körner became a classic. We got wide press coverage including the Observer, the Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC, to whom our Vice Chancellor said "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 collectivist view did not go down very well!

The University's governing body, the Council, reacted to this outrage in the usual way - by setting up a committee to report back once the fuss had died down. This committee, chaired by IP lawyer Bill Cornish, published its report almost a year later, in August 2003. It suggested that the University should take only patent rights, as it wouldn't be politically possible to do any more for the time being. There was a Discussion of the Report on the 21st October. The mood of the Regent House was against even Cornish's compromise, and in favour of restoring our rights as they were before 2001. Yet the detailed regulations now published by Cornish in 2004 are closer to the 2002 policy than to his 2003 compromise. They will give University bureaucrats a veto over many aspects of academic life that were previously under the sole control of academics.

The Proposed Regulations

We could summarise the 2002 proposals as `the University takes everything', the 2003 proposals as `the University takes only patents' and the 2004 proposals as `the University takes everything except copyright, narrowly defined'.

Although the proposals leave us with default ownership of copyright, they make a large number of other claims which undermine this apparent liberty:

These will have a number of effects, both on academics' freedom of enquiry and on our employment rights.

Effects on Academic Freedom of Enquiry

Quite apart from the policy's effects on academics involved in business - which I'll discuss below - many academics with no interest in business will find their work encumbered by IP claims which will involve them in extra bureaucracy, or make it harder for them to move elsewhere. Many students will be asked to sign away their IP in project and thesis work. There will be both direct and indirect effects.

There are more global reasons why individual academic ownership of intellectual property is important. See Larry Lessig's latest book, or my detailed analysis of the 2002 IP proposal. Over the last twenty years, a coalition of drug companies, the music industry and software publishers have pushed for ever more extensive copyright laws, which are being used to control culture and enclose the digital commons. Academics have been prominent in the fightback, through such diverse initiatives as the Public Library of Science, other open publishing initiatives, the Free Software movement and the Creative Commons. MIT, our US partner in CMI, has MIT Open Courseware.

The strategic effects will be even worse. The policy is the latest in a sequence of reforms started by the last Vice-Chancellor to turn Cambridge from a decentralised organisation controlled by the academic staff, much like the partners in a law firm, into a corporate entity in which power is wielded centrally by the Vice-Chancellor acting through the Unified Administrative Service. This reform has fostered bureaucratic empire-building and pushed the University from profit into loss. It has undermined our autonomy and our working conditions. If we cannot use our democratic mechanisms to draw a line in the sand on even this issue, then the depredations will continue. We've had an email policy that threatened academic staff with the sack if we ever sent an email that might offend anybody; we've had departmental administrators blocking the use of departmental email to people wishing to discuss IP issues with colleagues. Most shocking of all was the case of Mike Clark: our Research Services Division agreed, without his knowledge or consent, that he would submit all his relevant publications for vetting by a drug company that had licensed one of the University's patents. That's our future once RSD controls all our IP. And consultancy's next. Now that the demons of envy have been unleashed, Council members are starting to talk about requiring people who earn money from consulting to contribute a percentage to the Chest.

Oh, and by the way, Regulation 27 in the new proposal will prevent campaigns such as this one from using the University's crest in future. We use it in order to emphasise that we the academics, not the Unified Administrative Service, are the University. Sir Humphrey doesn't seem to appreciate that.

Effects on Academic Earnings and Employment Rights

In this sad world of ours, doctors and lawyers earn more than poets or philosophers. At some universities this is reflected in salary differentials; at a good US university, a medical professor might get $400,000, a computer scientist $200,000 and a poet $100,000. Cambridge has historically been different. All professors earn the same basic pay (less than $100,000), and only a few get small bonuses. But we are free to earn money on the side. Poets write books; computer scientists write software; lawyers plead cases in court; and medics see private patients.

If the new policy gets through, many academics wishing to earn side income involving creative intellectual activity will be beholden to the University for permissions, licenses or letters of comfort. Some of the richest academics - the medics, the lawyers and the writers of popular books - will probably escape, but people like scientists, technologists and language-teaching entrepreneurs will be caught. Just as in a typical national taxation system, the rich will get off scot-free, the poor will pay a bit, and the middle class will bear the brunt. Consider the following cases.

Some high-profile University academics will escape the effects of the new policy. For example, the next popular science book from Stephen Hawking will probably be unaffected - so long as the author is careful not to compile the index, but have it compiled by the publishers (so that only copyright, rather than database rights, are involved).

But these will be in the minority. Most academics either produce creative output spanning more than one kind of intellectual property right, or collaborate with externally-funded research students. In the case of academics whose work produces database material (such as DNA sequences) the new regulations could extinguish any entrepreneurial freedom, as well as the freedom to move to a better job elsewhere. In the case of academics whose work produces material such as designs or recordings that are claimed only when University equipment is used, a choice has to be made of whether to risk these rights or to buy all the necessary computers and other equipment out of one's own pocket. Given that the University has traditionally given academics free PCs and network access, this will be equivalent to a salary cut of several hundred pounds a year.

Economic Effects

The IP reforms were initially justified on economic grounds - that they would help the UK economy by promoting technology transfer, and that they would make money for the University. Yet there is a very substantial body of economic research which shows that university tech transfer operations mostly lose money. Occasionally, a University makes a windfall; but on balance it would have been better to put the money on the roulette wheel at a casino.

So will the expropriation of Cambridge patents and other IP make money for the economy? Here too the evidence is strongly negative. The definitive study of the Cambridge Phenomenon argued that the large number of high-tech businesses spun off from the University owed a lot to the fact that academics own our patents and copyrights, so those who were inclined to doing business start-ups could do so without having to appease University bureaucrats at every step and hand over most of the resulting profits. The second edition remarked that it was probably already harder, from an IP perspective, for academics to drive spin-out creation. The Cambridge technology transfer scene is also very diverse at present; creating a University monopoly on academic IP is the worst thing that could happen for entrepreneurship. Most local `business angels' believe that drastically tightening Cambridge's IP regime will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

For more, including links to relevant academic research, see our detailed analysis of the 2002 policy.

Other Issues

There are elaborate provisions for the University to set up an internal arbitration system, and even an appeal process. This raises an issue of natural justice, namely whether the University ought to be a judge in cases between it and its employees. Recent history also casts some doubt on the ability of our administration to adjudicate fairly between junior and senior staff.

There are many details in the policy that appear designed to supply the arbitrators and lawyers with work. For example, Regulation 20 says that if staff members cannot agree who made what share of an invention, any royalties will be split equally between them. In those fields where it's common for a senior researcher to provide 60% of the ideas and four junior staff 10% each, there will be a temptation for junior staff to dispute; once this is realised, the temptation will be for senior staff to involve as few juniors as they can. This will surely undermine trust, and the University's broader educational mission.

As our most recent Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston argues, the freedom to share information quickly, without hindrance from patent lawyers or bureaucrats, is critical to effective research. We must defend this freedom.

Ross Anderson

31st March 2004

The committee members of the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms are:

There has been significant press coverage of the first round of Cambridge's IP war, including articles in the Observer, the Telegraph, the Cambridge Evening News, ZDNET, THES, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC and Varsity.

There is a mailing list you can join, and there is also some discussion of the issue on the ucam.change.governance newsgroup. (We also have our own Dilbert :-)