'Cambridge phenomenon' threatened by IP changes

Academics argue that a proposal by Cambridge University to clamp down on intellectual property rights could mean the end of 'Silicon Fen'

Academics at Cambridge are warning that restrictive new intellectual property rules proposed by the university could mean an end to the high-tech boom that gave rise to the nickname "Silicon Fen".

Ross Anderson, a reader in security engineering at Cambridge's Computer Laboratory, said that the proposed changes could mean an end to the "Cambridge Phenomenon" that spawned such world-class companies as chip designer ARM Holdings, as well as hurting Cambridge's ability to attract top-quality researchers.

"People need incentives to work effectively, and by destroying the incentives at Cambridge, the phenomenon that has seen hundreds of high-tech companies grow up around the town in recent years," Anderson said.

The concerns of Anderson and other faculty members centre on a report issued last week by the university's Council and General Board, its central governing bodies, which recommends that Cambridge University "asserts ownership of all intellectual property generated by its employees in the normal course of their duties, from 1 January, 2003."

The report argues that while private spin-offs from the university have been very successful, researchers currently "have both the benefit and the burden of exploiting their technology... without specialist advice they may... prove vulnerable to predatory external parties, and any commercial deals done may be of variable quality."

To remedy this issue, the report argues, "the University needs a supportive infrastructure to ensure that where opportunities for application of new knowledge arise, the benefits to society are not lost." This would be achieved through requiring researchers to cede to the university ownership of all intellectual property generated in the course of their university work, and then collaborate with the university on commercialising their inventions.

The report was published on the university's Web site and included in the university newsletter.

Currently, Cambridge researchers keep the rights to their ideas unless they are generated in the course of sponsored research. Changing the rules would drastically change the working environment for scientists at Cambridge, Anderson argues. "This will change the Cambridge regime from being one of the most liberal in the UK to one of the most locked-down," he stated.

Cambridge's IP rules are similar to the liberal regimes at the Massachussetts Institite of Technology and Stanford -- on which the current Cambridge policy was based in the 1980s -- both of which have spun out a large number of high-tech companies. Stanford, along with the University of California at Berkeley, is credited with supplying the brainpower that made Silicon Valley possible.

By contrast, Anderson argues that there is a large amount of evidence that universities which claim ownership of any research carried out by faculty, such as Johns Hopkins University, produce very little commercialised research.

However, the university's report dismisses the idea that Cambridge's IP policies are linked to the "Cambridge phenomenon". "This rationalisation may be superficially attractive but is unprovable and a policy based on assertion and belief is hard to justify," the report states.

"Given the inconsistency in the current policy, it is hard to justify its continuation without a mechanism for eliciting disclosure of all inventions made using significant University resources," it continues.

Instead of modifying the current policy, the report argues that the policy should be replaced.

A provision on copyright may also lead to issues specifically affecting software created by university faculty, which Anderson believes could ultimately prevent faculty from releasing their software projects under open-source licences. Licences such as the General Public License allow software source code to be freely modified and redistributed, as long as the modifications are released back to the community.

The provision claims copyright on "works (that have) have been commissioned by a sponsor or by the University", which could be taken to include material prepared for lectures, Anderson argues.

"If we individually own our software, we can blow a raspberry at the likes of Microsoft," he said. "But once they centralise control of copyright in the university... a bureaucrat could put through some measures during summer holiday, and suddenly university software can't be released under the GPL."

Anderson noted that the university's largest private donor is Microsoft, a company which is openly hostile to open-source software.

Anderson hopes to raise enough opposition to the changes to prevent them from coming to a vote in the Regent House, where it would be difficult to block the new rules from coming into force.

For a round-up of the latest tech business coverage, see the Business News Section.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Go to the ZDNet news forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.