Intellectual property policies in universities

IP Draughts has been reading with great interest Intellectual asset management for universities, a report recently issued by the UK Intellectual Property Office.  The foreword describes the document as a “guide to IP strategy for senior Higher Education decision makers”.

Although issued by the IPO, the report is really the work of a committee of representatives of the leading, non-commercial bodies involved in UK research and knowledge transfer, including AURIL, HEFCE, PraxisUnico, Research Councils UK and Universities UK.  The report identifies the main points that university senior management should consider when devising and implementing their IP policies.

The report contains many nuggets of wisdom.  Statements that IP Draughts identified with include the following, fairly random, selection:

  • Universities should consider their IPR strategies as part of their research strategy rather than their earned income strategy.
  • Effective IP management is …concerned with seeking to maximise the likelihood that unexpected high returns might happen, not with setting targets for financial returns and judging performance against these targets.
  • Clear rationales that cover when to sell, license or create a spin-out company should be in place…
  • Aspects of internal performance in IP managements to consider measuring include …the number of iterations required to complete contracts and the time taken on these iterations.

The report makes some interesting points about students and IP.  In our experience universities have – in the immortal words of Cheryl Cole – been on a journey.  A generation ago, most of them didn’t think about IP created by students.  Then they woke up and realised that there was IP leakage when students were involved in IP-generating research projects.  Some universities overreacted and claimed ownership of all IP generated by their students, building such terms into the financial regulations of the university and making students agree to those regulations as a condition of admission to their courses.   IP Draughts vividly recalls reading a web discussion forum some years ago, when Australian pre-undergraduates were comparing notes on the IP policies of Australian universities when deciding which university to choose.  A typical concern was that the university would claim ownership of their computer games.  At the time, we wondered how many Vice Chancellors realised that their IP policies might be putting off bright students from applying to their universities.

More recently, some universities have been taking a more measured approach, and only claiming IP generated by the student when working on a university research project.  This may be effected by asking the student to sign an assignment before being admitted to a research project.    A more tailored policy of this kind has the disadvantage that it has to be implemented, usually at departmental level, on a case-by-case basis, and academics are not always diligent about such matters.  By contrast, a blanket policy, although it may sometimes be arbitrary and unfair in its effects, has the advantage that it is easier to administer.

A repeated theme of the report is that each university must devise its own IP strategy based on its own circumstances and priorities – a “one size fits all” approach should be avoided.  While we have some sympathy with this view, we felt the document could have given more guidance on some of the decision-points, eg whether the university or the individual creator should own (a) inventions, (b) copyright in lectures and books, (c) designs (eg in a school of architecture or creative arts).

There is much sound advice in the report.  At times, however, we felt the document needed editing and pruning to make its points more concisely.  How many Vice Chancellors will wade through a 45-page document of this kind?  For example, some of the detail around contract terms read more like a teaching guide for contracts managers and seemed out of place in a report for senior decision-makers. We were left wondering whether the document was addressed to multiple readers – eg Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Industry Engagement (or similar), Finance Director and Head of Technology Tranfer – and whether it would have been better to focus on one or two of these consituencies.

We strongly agree with the report’s comments on the need to spend time in communicating and explaining the university’s IP policies both internally and externally.  In our view, all students and academics should receive some basic IP training as part of their induction to the university.

We continue to be uncertain of the role of the IPO in IP management at UK universities.  We understand that the IPO will be undertaking other initiatives in this area, and we feel these might be better left to people who work in the university sector, such as PraxisUnico, which runs excellent courses for knowledge transfer managers.

1 Comment

Filed under Intellectual Property, Legal policy

One response to “Intellectual property policies in universities

  1. This course has been designed to reflect the role of individuals who will posses a sound theoretical knowledge base and use a range of specialised, technical or managerial competencies to plan, carry out and evaluate their own work and/or the work of a team.

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