I write this blog at home, in my free time. I have never used my office computer for this purpose. My home computer, printer, internet connection, and the laptop I travel with are all paid from my own personal funds. In the past, I charged the cost of laptops to my research grants, on account of their being used primarily for research-related travel; I no longer do that. I have personal email addresses that I use for work-unrelated correspondence, and I have never put a personal snail-mail letter in the departmental mailbox.
There’s a reason why I’m telling you about it.
Via Faculty Association, we learn that UBC is proposing a new policy on intellectual property. Labelled as a “revision” of the existing Policy no. 88, “Patents and Licensing,” it represents a radical departure from long-established basic principles on intellectual property and academic work. Basically, it requires us to cede the ownership of all of our research and academic writing to UBC, except where industrial partners have a competing claim. In no case, if the policy passes, will the ownership rest with the faculty authors.
Here are the relevant links:
- The current Policy 88 (“Patents and Licensing”)
- The proposed new Policy 88 (“Intellectual Products”)
- The excellent response from the Faculty Association
My research is unlikely to lead to patents or commercial applications. My “intellectual products” are research papers, expository articles, monographs and teaching materials. Under the current Policy 88, these are classified as “literary works” (Section 1.3), and the policy states clearly that the ownership of such works and intellectual property rights to them rests with the individuals involved (Section 2.3). This is consistent with long-standing academic traditions and with the corresponding policies at peer universities. I thought I had nothing to worry about here. (Audiovisual and computer materials are treated differently, but only where the faculty propose to “protect or license” their work.)
Enter the proposed new policy.
“University Research” means any research conducted by a University Person involving or utilizing the facilities, equipment or financial aid (including any grant funding) provided or administered by the University [...] – Section 5.1
“University Research Product” means any inventions, discoveries, know-how, compounds, biological materials, compilations of data, software, integrated circuit topographies, blue prints, drawings and designs, processes, and prototypes, and all intellectual property through which it may be protected that is created, developed, discovered, conceived or invented in the course of University Research but excludes all Work Product. – Section 5.2
“Work Product” means anything created by University Persons whose employment duties include the creation or development of the intellectual product [...] – Section 6.1.
So how does the new policy address the question of ownership of our work? That’s simple:
As University Research, by definition, involves the utilization of University facilities, equipment, or financial aid, University Research Products are owned by the University. – Section 5.5.
The ownership of Work Product is vested with the University. – Section 6.2.
I’m just an old-fashioned math professor who has no interest in commercializing any part of my academic work. Presumably, my research publications and monographs would fall into the “University Research Product” category. Teaching materials might be classified as “work product,” given that (a) it’s not research and (b) I’m required to produce them as part of my job. But what about Section 6.3, then? Does it mean that I cannot post midterm solutions on the course web page without the university’s written approval?
What about textbooks and lecture notes? This type of writing has always been over and above our normal teaching duties. If UBC really tries to lay claim to the ownership of textbooks, and income from them, the reasonable response from the faculty would be to just stop writing them. Curiously – unlike, say, integrated circuit topographies – neither teaching materials nor textbooks are mentioned explicitly in the policy.
So what rights do I have to my own research? In Section 1.1, we are encouraged to disclose publicly the results, provided that does not violate any existing relevant agreements. Section 5.3 grants us a “non-exclusive licence to undertake Non-Commercial Mobilization” of our work. I understand it to mean that I have UBC’s permission to post my papers on my webpage and on the arXiv, and to present my research at conferences.
The next step is to submit the paper to a journal for publication… but wait. All journals require the authors to enter into a publishing agreement with them. Some demand a transfer of copyright. Others allow authors to retain copyright, but require a license to publish and distribute the article. Will we have the authority to sign such agreements if the research is not our intellectual property and we never owned the copyright to it in the first place?
What if the paper was written in collaboration with colleagues from other institutions? Does UBC claim ownership of their work as well, just because they collaborated with me?
It gets worse where books and monographs are concerned. Publishing a book is certainly not “non-commercial mobilization.” Books get sold, we get paid royalties. According to the new policy, I would have to “disclose” any book I wrote to the university, whereupon the University-Industry Liaison Office would assess its “mobilization potential” and, where appropriate, contact third parties (publishers?) and negotiate agreements with them. If the university declines to engage, it may assign the “product” back to us – without charge! (Procedures, Section 3.5.) And if the university just sits on the paperwork and does nothing? Apparently, we may request updates, but no more often than once per fiscal year. That’s Section 3.4 of Procedures.
And if I were to disagree with UBC’s determination of what to do with my research? Currently, Policy 88 provides for arbitration under applicable provincial legislation. The proposed policy leaves the final word always with UBC, making it both a party and the judge in such disputes. (Procedures, Sections 3.2 and 4.4.)
There’s more. The language in the definition of “research products” is unclear and excessively broad, and the stated rationale for UBC ownership of intellectual property is simply that university resources were used in its creation. That would appear to apply not only to our research, but also to any email sent from my office computer, any letter sent from campus (including confidential professional correspondence), or indeed any blog entry posted from my office.
I understand, and agree with, the basic principle that university resources are to be used for work purposes. That’s what I was saying at the beginning of this post. But I do not agree that simple use of resources should justify an automatic transfer of ownership. Because you know what? I often write research papers and prepare teaching materials at home. On the same computer that I used my own personal funds to purchase. I answer work-related email from home, log in to the required administrative pages, print materials. If UBC were to claim ownership to those “products” where I did not use my own personal resources in their creation, it would have next to nothing. For everything else, my claim is at least as good as theirs.
This is a corporate policy, written in the corporate language of “products,” “mobilization” and streamlined commercialization, rather than enabling pursuit of truth and intellectual inquiry. It does not respect the traditional and well justified autonomy of the faculty. It does not befit a public, government-funded, highly ranked university.