Intellectual property at UBC

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:

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.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

8 thoughts on “Intellectual property at UBC”

  1. I definitely prefer Waterloo’s 100% inventor-owns IP policy. I think that in many cases such a policy is going to be more profitable for the university (but I don’t have hard numbers), since they can still make money if the inventor invites the university to help commercialize the invention. It also breeds good feelings towards the university.

    I hope that proposed policy change doesn’t stand.

  2. I am afraid that this is a general trend. In the U.S. nonsense like this will be slightly more difficult to pull off due to the existence of the Bill of Rights, but I am not terribly confident about that. After observing our government’s reaction to the recent riots related to the now infamous youtube video, I am fairly convinced that neither political party is truly committed to the first amendment rights. And if the right to free speech is iffy, protecting intellectual property rights is that much harder. But we have to try…

  3. This is crazy. I hope you are able to amass enough of a cadre of sane people such that nobody needs to threaten to quit for the administration to listen to reason.

  4. Well, the Faculty Association recommends writing to the university legal counsel. I did that before I wrote the post. I’m spreading the word so that more faculty would take the same step. Beyond that, I’m not sure what else I can do. I’m not exactly in a position of power here.

  5. I think you are doing exactly the right thing, Izabella. When the graduate program in mathematics at the University of Rochester was nearly eliminated in the mid 90s, a strong response from mathematicians from all over the world made the difference in the end and saved the department. The situation you describe is not as severe on the surface, but its long term effects could be quite devastating. Broad intellectual property rights is one of the factors that makes academic work different than employment at a typical private corporation. If this distinction is eliminated and we let it happen, other even less attractive steps will follow.

  6. As a staff member I’m even more screwed:

    ““Work Product” means anything created by University Persons whose employment duties include the creation or development of the intellectual product […] – Section 6.1.”

    My duties do include doing that: so they get everything? Ever? Even when not done on work time and not on work equipment? This reads like it does.

  7. Yes, I noticed that. But also, this is in direct contradiction with Section 3.1 (“External Activity Products”). The draft would be really funny actually if it weren’t being proposed as an actual policy.

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