Intellectual Property Rights: A Ticking Time Bomb in Academia

By Scott, M. M. | Academe, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

Intellectual Property Rights: A Ticking Time Bomb in Academia


Scott, M. M., Academe


Ticking Time Bomb in Academia

ISSUES OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS ARE AT the heart of the academic enterprise. "Intellectual property" refers to the output of the human brain or, in a word, ideas. Traditionally, ideas have been owned by the person who produced them. Recently, however, universities have begun to act like corporations, attempting to claim ownership of professors' ideas in order to market them. This change may have devastating consequences for academics. In the short run, the new market-based strategies abridge academic freedom; in the long run, they have the potential to diminish the human knowledge base.

Nature of the Bomb

MANY FACULTY MEMBERS ARE NOT YET AWARE OF THE issues involved in questions of intellectual property. Nor do they understand the substantial and far-reaching implications for their work, as well as that of their colleagues and students, of decisions being made daily by administrators and boards of trustees. Others, who may have heard of intellectual property rights, think naively that only scientists and those who deal with patents have to concern themselves with such rights. But many administrators and trustees are already examining the humanities and arts for ideas and products they can sell. The marked change in the way universities deal with intellectual property began in the 1970s. Rapidly escalating expenses began to outstrip the ability of universities to generate revenue, while tuition increases soared beyond most parents' capacity to pay. The great influx of research monies from the federal government that began during World War II leveled off. Although large endowment campaigns temporarily stemmed the financial crisis for some universities, most institutions eventually faced uncontrolled escalation in costs without discernible means of meeting them. At about the same time, the corporate sector was experiencing a similar economic crunch. The leading edge of what is today called downsizing, or "leansizing" or "rightsizing," was beginning. Businesses began to reduce sharply or eliminate some of their departments, and one of the first to go was the research and development department. But the corporate world soon realized that it needed the research and development function to fuel future growth. As businesses began to scan the larger environment, they saw organizations called universities that were largely research producers. Administrators in some universities welcomed this attention. Corporations and universities, in effect, rediscovered each other to their mutual economic benefit.

Companies began to fund professors' research in return for exclusive rights to that research. Information that had traditionally been free and available to all now flowed to just one company. Professors were often caught between the university's need for resources and the company's need for secrecy. To get corporate funding, many academics had to keep their research secret and delay publication of their results until companies could, as they said, "protect their investment." To be sure, some professors were seduced by the lure of potential dollars. Many others, however, signed contracts without realizing that they were giving up their intellectual birthright, the free and open exchange of information.

Real Bomb or Just a Clock in a Suitcase?

AN EXAMPLE MAY HELP TO ILLUSTRATE THE FUNDAMENTAL academic issues embedded in questions of intellectual property. Dr. Hamstrung (a pseudonym for a professor at a large midwestern research university) joined a research project to develop instructional technology suitable for use with a piece of equipment being produced by a large technology company. Faculty members, students, company officials, and technical personnel discussed the project at length in an open and free manner. The research questions looked interesting and exciting to the professors, and the company seemed excited (and generous) about the prospects. …

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Intellectual Property Rights: A Ticking Time Bomb in Academia
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