Brawl at Brown Over Who Owns Research

Brown moves to assert more rights to faculty inventions, and some professors are unhappy.
April 7, 2005

When you are a university scientist, do you ever have time that is truly your own?

That question is at the crux of a debate at Brown University over intellectual property. The university is moving toward a new policy that would clarify, among other things, that the university's rules on who owns faculty research applies to inventions produced during sabbaticals, vacations or other periods that some professors have considered their own time. Like those at most universities, Brown's policy outlines procedures for assigning royalty shares to the researcher, his or her lab, and the university.

At a heated faculty meeting on Tuesday, professors voted, 33 to 22, to endorse the policy, but some professors are arguing that the lack of a quorum invalidates the decision. Regardless, Brown's board will have the final say and it if it approves the policy, as expected, some scientists at the university will be very angry.

Sean Ling, an associate professor of physics and the most outspoken critic of the policy, said it makes "inventors feel like slaves," and that he may need to leave Brown if the new rules are put in place.

The university says that the new policy is not anything unusual for higher education, and that the distinctions that professors are making between "university time" and their own time don't reflect the realities of academe. Sabbaticals and vacations "are benefits of appointment at Brown," so it is appropriate for the new policy to cover work performed during those periods, according to an FAQ the university released with the proposed policy.

The university also used the FAQ to answer the question of why universities are entitled to a share of such profits: "Brown provides the faculty member with facilities and a financial support environment in which to create, invent and discover."

Ling, however, said that the policy makes no sense when it extends beyond work at Brown. "It is clearly illegal for the university to claim something I can prove that I did off campus on my own unpaid time." He predicted that researchers would end up suing the university if it adopts the policy.

For Ling, the concern about the proposal isn't hypothetical. He currently divides his time between his university lab and a startup company he founded last year. Such dual careers, he said, benefit the university and the Rhode Island economy, but will become impossible if investors feel that the university will claim to own all inventions produced by professors.

If Brown's board approves the new policy, Ling said, "I'll have to consider if I should spend the most creative part of my career here."


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