Academics at Cambridge University are divided over a new proposal by the university to tighten its control over intellectual property created by faculty by managing patent applications and taking a stake in spin-out companies. Under the current regulations, the university has no effective control over intellectual property created by the majority of its staff.

The university says that the new rules will bring Cambridge in line with other universities; and that it is only right that the whole of the university benefits. The university says it is concerned that the current system penalizes junior staff who contribute to research but sometimes miss out while distinguished heads of departments can make millions.

Cambridge now owns the right to patent ideas arising from externally funded research by charities, research bodies or companies, which accounts for 70 per cent of the output. Faculty retain ownership of the intellectual property in other work they do. The inventor would receive about a third of the proceeds, with the rest going to the university. Academics would continue to be free to decide to publish their work rather than seek commercial development. Faculty will also be able to demand that the university assign back to them the relevant intellectual property rights so they can seek commercial sponsors, with the university claiming a proportion of the profits.

Opponents claim that the new rules will discourage entrepreneurs and damage growth in the region, which is home to more than 900 high-tech firms. Cambridge faculty are also worried that the university will try to strike a deal similar to the 2001 venture where IP2IPO, an investment vehicle, gave £20m to Oxford University in return for a stake in any companies that were spun out of its chemistry department over the following 15 years. Faculty have now forced a vote of all members of the university, which can over-rule the management’s decision. Previous attempts by the university authorities to revise the rules on ownership of intellectual property have failed.

David Norwood, chief executive of IP2IPO, described the reforms as essential. “These academics are happy to take the money and use the university’s infrastructure,” he said. “The idea that the intellectual property belongs to them is ridiculous. UK taxpayers are paying for this. We expect returns for the investment in them.”

Enactment of the Bayh-Dole Act (P.L. 96-517) in the U.S. created a uniform patent policy among the many federal agencies that fund research. Bayh-Dole gave U.S. universities control of their inventions by placing few restrictions on the universities’ licensing activities. The success of Bayh-Dole in expediting the commercialization of federally funded university patents is seen by the fact that prior to 1981, fewer than 250 patents were issued to universities per year. Slightly over a decade later, almost 1,600 were issued each year. Of those, nearly 80% stemmed from federally funded research. The ability to retain title to and license their inventions has been a healthy incentive for universities.

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