Cambridge IP - Rebuttal and Frequently Asked Questions

IP Ballot - Vote for the Amendments!

Ross Anderson

See - website of the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms.

Yesterday the University circulated ballot papers for the policy on Intellectual property, together with a booklet of flysheets some of which argue for the Council's proposal while others argue for the amended proposal.

Most of the flysheets supporting the Council proposal reiterate two misconceptions:

There are a number of other misconceptions in the pro-Council flysheets, some of which illuminate the thinking behind the proposals.

Here now are answers to some of the questions that have been most frquently asked during earlier campaigning. We'll be adding to these over the next few days.

1. What is the IP dispute really about?

It's about whether Cambridge University should continue to be a self-governing community of scholars that grows organically - as it has been with such success for 800 years - or whether it should become a more corporate entity, run by professional managers who try to pursue strategic goals. Even more bluntly: should the central administration be our servants or our masters?

2. That sounds all very well - but I'm a humanities lecturer, so all I care about is my copyright. That's safe, isn't it, so why should I support you?

Here's four good reasons. First, the reason your copyrights are safe (for now) is that we stopped the University grabbing them with its 2002 policy; now it's payback time and we're asking for your solidarity and support. Second, your students and postdocs will suffer, as the University will claim their IP if they're externally funded. Third, the two schools that will be most damaged - technology and medicine - are the profitable schools; and a poorer Cambridge will be less able to subsidise humanities departments. Finally, once the administration gets used to milking its more successful academics, then sooner or later everyone's in the frame. What's the justice in the University taking a share of engineers' patents but not of historians' TV series? Why should medics have to share their private-practice fees with the department - but not lawyers?

3. That's certainly food for thought. But the University says its proposals will stop staff and students having to sue each other in the courts. Surely that's a good thing?

We agree entirely. The arbitration system will not only help people resolve disputes over whose name should go on a patent, but the much more frequent disputes about whose name should go on a paper. It's overdue. The only change we propose is to extend it - so that people can use the system for existing disputes, not just new disputes arising from 2006.

4. The University also says its proposals will make the treatment of tenured and contract staff more consistent. It this true?

See above. This is indeed a problem, and the amendments cope with it better. The Council proposal seeks to level tenured staff down to the low level of rights enjoyed at present by contract staff, while the amendments seek to level contract staff up.

5. I'm a member of academic-related staff - in fact a computer officer. I don't file patents, I just write software. Why should I bother about this?

We extend rights to material produced in the course of your work rather than research. That means that you can put the software you write in the public domain without having to ask permission first. None of the pro-council flysheets have rebutted this, but Council didn't take it as a friendly amendment. The only way that non-research staff, or research staff who produce non-research output, can control your own work is by voting for the amendment, and even the pro-council side don't dispute that.

6. Why do you use the University's crest on your web page and leaflets?

Regulation 31 states that `The University is solely entitled to use its name and arms'. The background is that our administration seems to want to sharpen up our `brand'. Should it have the power, for example, to stop a controversial student society using the Cambridge name? This is a discussion we have to have, especially in view of the possible tensions between academic freedom and the Home Office's `radicalisation' agenda. However, a Grace on the commercial exploitation of research should not be used to slip such a regulation through. We're therefore proposing to amend Regulation 31 to `The University is solely entitled to make commercial use of its name and arms'.

7. The university says it didn't mean to take the right to make contracts without the consent of staff. What do you say to that?

Right at the beginning of this, when we pointed out the terrible effects that the 2002 policy would have, the reply from the Council was "we didn't mean it". After more than three years, one committee, three Reports, four Discussions, one eminent QC and the support of 14 other law professors, aren't we entitled to expect that the Old Schools will mean what they say and say what they mean? This is legislation, after all: it will take effect once the Grace is approved, whichever way the ballot goes. If you don't mean the University to acquire the power to make contracts on your behalf, you had better vote for the amendments.

8. What happens if you lose? Is that the end of the whole dreaful row?

That's unlikely, for several reasons. First, tenured staff will still have much better terms than contract staff, and once the principle of levelling down has been accepted (rather than levelling up) the temptation will be for the University to ask for more. Second, the injustice of treating technologists' patents more severely than historians' books will rankle. Third, the Cambridge Enterprise bureaucracy won't make its budget - facing a choice between paying 15% tax to exploit an idea yourself or 67% tax to have it exploited by CE, you can be sure that the valuable ideas will be self-exploited and CE will end up with the turkeys. So the current share of patent income enjoyed by the centre will go down from about half to something near 15%. All these factors will create strong incentives for the centre to move against the next target - and Regulation 2 gives it the power to do so.

The net effect is likely to be that IP will remain a running sore for years. It will distract management time and attention, poison relationships between academic and administrative staff, and undermine the octocentenary fundraising campaign. We don't need any of that.

IP Ballot - Vote for the Amendments!