How should Universities manage Intellectual Property by 2020?

The UK’s government department for innovation, universities and skills (DIUS) is working on developing a framework for higher education in the UK for the next ten to fifteen years to strive towards maintaining a world class education system in 2020. One of the big questions in the DIUS consultation is around intellectual property (IP). In fact the precise questions is “How should Universities manage IP by 2020, for their own benefit and for the wider economy”?

One hypothesis that underpins some of our work is that we need more outwardly facing academic communities, embodied perhaps by ‘public intellectuals’ who regularly engage with businesses, policy issues, current affairs, global challenges, or with experts in other disciplines. A couple of stories fresh in my mind from events in the last couple of weeks come to mind that I think are relevant.

  • CERN carefully considered patenting the World Wide Web when it was created but its inventor Tim Berners Lee had to push hard to keep it free and open. Would the web have had the impact it has on our society and economy had they patented it? Almost certainly not.
  • LEGO Mindstorms was hacked within a week of being available on the market, clrealy infringing LEGOs copyright. They had to decide to sue or support. They decided on the latter and, to cut a long story short, it led to Mindstorms being the most successful product range ever. So much so that LEGO now has shifted its perception of itself as a manufacturer of toys as a facilitator of fan-based networks.

Neither of these examples come from Universities, but what can we take from them to answer the DIUS question? Will universities shift their own perception of themselves as Lego did? How can we learn the lessons of the challenge faced by CERN in the late 1980’s when Tim Berners Lee created the web? Interested, as always, in any views.


  1. Clearly, the models of openness mentioned (Tim Berners-Lee and Lego) are inspiring and point the way to go.
    In Charles Leadbeater’s book ‘We-Think’ he quotes a copyright notice that Woody Guthrie attached to hand-printed songbooks in the 1930s:
    “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
    I also like the example of the Open Architecture Network, where you can download free plans for an environmentally-friendly family home, or a solar-powered water harvester, energy generator and composting toilet. (
    Personally I deal with ideas and publications, but not ‘inventions’ as such, so I am not so well qualified to comment on IP in that area; but it would seem reasonable that the fruits of publicly-funded projects (such as science/engineering work funded by the research councils) should be available to all, probably with some creative-commons kind of licence that means the inventors should be acknowledged in a particular way.
    As a social science researcher I am happy to share the fruits of my work, although it is annoying if people nick your texts or presentations and reproduce them without acknowledgment (which happens rarely). I have a smallish income from published books, which take a lot of effort for a relatively small financial reward, and so I have an interest in the system of copyright not entirely collapsing … but I think published books are not dead yet and people still like to buy a book.
    I have been making resources freely available online for over a decade, and take the view that academics have a responsibility to do that kind of thing. Those academics who are not used to doing this are currently being encouraged to ‘deposit’ their works in ‘open access archives’ but these are largely unattractive online environments where texts are basically dumped, and are hard to find, so it’s a step forwards but not a great solution. Clearly this kind of info-dump is not at all interactive, either, and misses those collaborative ‘we-think’ opportunities.
    Those are some thoughts, for what they’re worth…

  2. At the NESTA Innovation Edge conference, both Bob Geldof and Sam Pitroda queried the usefulness of the kinds of students universities are turning out at the moment, implying that the values and skills embedded by a university education may not be very useful in the Real World. I don’t think that’s true, but it does indicate that we need to stay on our toes with regard to understanding and participating in the changing media landscape. IP is naturally a large element of this and I’d like to flag up a few points in relation to it:
    1. We know that by 2010 intake demographics will be changing sharply, with far fewer younger entrants at undergrad level and probably a lot more older entrants wishing to study towards all kinds of degrees – undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD.
    2. These people are bound to have different expectations and experiences of IP. Many of them will be transliterate amplified individuals, perhaps already owning various kinds of IP derived from participation in the Web 2.0 world. They may even be put off from entering academia, preferring to find more congenial environments in which to innovate and monetise their own IP.
    3. Industry is pushing hard for transdisciplinarity and collaboration – both notoriously difficult to regulate in relation to IP. Academia needs to engage with that debate now and aim to lead the experiment rather than be left trailing behind.
    Last week at De Montfort University we honoured Howard Rheingold who, in his graduation speech, advised graduating students to “Pay attention to irrelevant details and follow intriguing but useless connections.”
    Now, more than ever, we need to spread the range of our research and have the courage to fly some kites which might fall to the ground in the hope that others will take off. But failure brings just as much learning, if not more, than success, so we have to try. And, most importantly, we have to move out of our subject silos to work together and to share our findings. That way, I feel sure, lies the route to finding the best way for Universities manage their IP.

  3. David and Sue – thanks for your comments. Lots of issues raised here.
    UK academia has traditionally been critisised for not creating enough IP in comparison to our rate of academic publication which is generally high. We are good at coming up with ideas but not good at exploiting them.
    Why this is the case is still something that we need to graple with.
    Another issue for Universities to consider is what type of IP they protect and try and exploit.
    NESTA is funding a new project called Unviersities United which looks to innovate for social good
    The team working on this poject (from Sheffield, Ulster and the University of the Arts, London) have found that their institutions are looking to support innovation and IP that can provide high tech, high value spin-outs. Whilst this may make financial sense, it misses out on the many social and communtiy ventures that Universities could and should be supporting.

  4. A key issue yet to be explored, when it comes to Universities and IP, is the fact that funding from the Government towards Universities is often based on the results of the RAE ( in layman’s terms, a 4 yearly audit on the amount of research outputs a University generates and the quality of it) – in this sense this often puts Universities in competition with each other as only one University can claim the output. With Government funding being the foundation of a University’s ability to function, it is clear if cross collaboration is to work going forwards this issue needs attention. We know cross collaboration works, it delivers innovation unimaginable by individual disciplines and is of enormous value. We need some input from Government on this, so that there is a framework of value and encouragement that doesn’t in effect penalise Universities or rather, the academics within them from collaborating .

  5. Rachel’s point is very interesting (“The Universities United team… have found that their institutions are looking to support innovation and IP that can provide high tech, high value spin-outs. Whilst this may make financial sense, it misses out on the many social and communtiy ventures that Universities could and should be supporting”).
    That’s very true … the kind of ‘soft’ innovations that we might develop down my way, such as tools for thinking about social problems, would not be on the radar since universities think that innovation only looks like a high-tech ‘invention’, preferably with a robot arm.

  6. Thanks all. Really useful stuff here. I love both the Woody Guthrie and Howard Rheingold quotes, and Helen’s point about having an infrastrucutre the currently inhibit’s collaboration between institutions is critical.
    FYI, for more detailed debate about this theme, also take a look at the DIUS/JISC blog on this topic at:

  7. Incidentally I was talking to a senior person at LEGO the other day and I ran past him the idea, reported by Roland here, that “LEGO now has shifted its perception of itself as a manufacturer of toys [to being] a facilitator of fan-based networks”.
    Now, I don’t want to knock this idea, as it is a lovely-sounding thing, and I am bound to want to repeat it in lectures (!). But the LEGO guy confirmed, as I suspected, that in reality this is not really a good summary of how LEGO sees itself – it is still a toy manufacturer, very much so, at heart.
    On the other hand they certainly do work very well with fan communities, and are a cool and inspiring company who I am very happy to work with. But I thought it was interesting that on the one hand there are cool-sounding “business ideas”, like the ones Charles Leadbeater talks about so well, and then on the other hand there is actual business practice … and they don’t seem to line up that well.
    Sorry, though, about this relatively miserabilist post, I do prefer to be optimistic…

  8. David,
    You raise an important point between the hype of the business press articles from the reality of the business. It’s something we see a lot and are trying to figure out how best to unpick it (not in the case of Lego by the way).
    My source for that statement btw was also from a senior guy at Lego, but no big organisation has a homogenous view of itself I guess.

    • I was on a four year grant at USC to evaluate how Colleges and Universities manage Intellectual Property. It was a daunting undertaking to say the least. I visited over twenty such institutions and found a large variety of formal and ad hoc approaches being taken. One University claimed rights on a sculpture created by an artist in residence. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation through their IP revenues funded a great deal of Research at that University. By the way a patent relating to Homogenized milk got that foundation going many years ago.
      The usual overview of the subject looks at the variety of laws that cover the waterfront in the field and over the last twenty years numerous new and sometimes conflicting laws regulations and law suits have arisen. Every major University has a patent and copyright policy and creative faculty often negotiate private deals rather than allow themselves to be caught unawares when a property right arises.
      Factors such as the decision to allow certain forms of software to be patented turned many things upside down. I studied that issue for the US patent office many years ago. I also spent time at European Universities that wrestled with these issues from a somewhat different point of view.
      I am a Distinguished Lecturer for the Association for Computing Machinery *ACM) and have lectured and consulted on the subject all over the world.
      One thing is certain the IP base to discuss IP changes rather rapidly.

      • Thank you Donald for sharing your very interesting experience in this field on this post which was originally posted 8 years ago! Lots has happened in the interim but it doesn’t feel to me that enough has changed substantially in the way Universities, create, protect and unlock new value through intellectual property. I know some of our clients will not work with certain universities due to their IP policies and it could become a differentiator between institutions about how to handle IP effectively. Thanks again for your contribution and perhaps it’s time we take a fresh look at the subject. All the best, Roland

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.