Who Owns Research at Brown?

Administrators agree to clarify a policy on intellectual property -- and faculty critics are pleased.
May 5, 2005

Brown University officials agreed Tuesday to clarify a proposed intellectual property policy that some professors said would have infringed on their rights and made it impossible for them to consult with businesses.

The clarifications largely satisfied professors, and the faculty overwhelmingly approved the revised proposal, which now goes to Brown's board, which is expected to approve it. Administrators said the policy was never intended to be as restrictive as the critics feared -- but that they were happy that everyone was now on board.

Statements in the policy draft implied to some faculty members that anything a Brown faculty member worked on -- even in an off-campus lab run by a private company -- would be claimed as intellectual property by the university. And some faculty members had been vocal in opposing it.

Andries van Dam, vice president for research at Brown, said that was "a complete and total misreading" of what the university was trying to do. He said that Brown wants faculty members to consult, and that he has done so in the past.

The purpose of the policy, he said, was to insist on Brown's right to a share of intellectual property rights for inventions that are based in part on work performed at the university and in part at a private business. At the same time, he said, Brown could not adopt -- as he said some professors advocated -- a policy of claiming only inventions developed entirely during the time they were physically at the university.

Such a policy would have resulted, he said, in the "I thought of it while I was in the shower" defense, in which researchers would insist that all of their breakthroughs came when they were at home.

Sean Ling, an associate professor of physics and one of the more outspoken critics of the policy, said he was pleased with this week's discussions. He disputed the idea that the university had only clarified the policy and characterized it as the university "backing down" from a policy "to essentially enslave Brown scientists."

But he called the revised policy "fair and reasonable."


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