LONDON — In the quiet halls of Cambridge University, a distinctly 21st-century battle is brewing over a question that has vexed academic institutions around the world. Who owns faculty members' ideas -- some of them very profitable?
Cambridge has angered some of its professors by proposing a very American notion: that it should hold the rights and patents to all the concepts and inventions they create. Critics say taking control away from researchers could corrupt the university's mission by putting the profit motive ahead of a traditional focus on advancing the frontiers of knowledge and contributing to the public good.
The plan's opponents -- many of them computer and biotechnology researchers who've made handsome profits from their work -- also warn that the change could remove the incentive to innovate and squelch a university-led boom that has made the Cambridge area Britain's high-tech center.
"Effectively, our ideas would no longer be our own but would belong to the university," said Mike Clark, a lecturer in pathology.
"We may be forced to maximize our profit in the short term even though that may not be in the benefit of society in the long term. I don't think universities should think that way."
The university says the change would be fairer than the current system, which gives Cambridge ownership of results from research funded by private groups and some government departments while letting faculty hold the rights to work funded by a larger public grant program. "What the university is looking to do is put all staff on equal footing," said Simon Jones, head of research collaborations.
Opponents say the change would move Cambridge from being one of the country's most generous universities on intellectual property to one of those that holds rights most tightly. Jones said it would bring the rules in line with those at most other British universities.
If the proposal passes -- faculty members are to consider it in October -- the university would, as of next year, hold all rights stemming from work that staffers do on the job, with the exception of written material like books and articles.
Faculty members would keep 90% of the first 20,000 pounds ($30,000) that their idea makes, a share that declines as the profits increase, down to a third of income above 100,000 pounds ($150,000).
"It's killing the goose that lays the golden eggs," said Ross Anderson, a computer science don leading the fight against the plan. "The university will ... have its hand in our pocket and it's outrageous."
Anderson credits the university's traditionally liberal approach to patent rights with helping make it a center for cutting-edge research and fueling the area's slew of start-up technology companies, many partly founded by Cambridge dons.
He predicted that some faculty members dependent on outside income would quit right away.
"The economic effects will take a longer time to work themselves out.... There just won't be as much business formation."
The university disagrees, saying that although the current system provides some incentives, there is too little support for academics trying to navigate the business world. Under the new plan, it promises to provide more help.
In Britain and the United States, universities eager to bolster their budgets have jealously eyed the profits of professors, mostly in the sciences, who've found market applications for their work.
Nearly all American universities keep ownership of patents on inventions created at their schools, while sharing any royalties with the inventor. A 1980 U.S. law enables them to retain ownership of inventions created by their scholars with federal funds. U.S. schools hold 13,000 patents, which earned them $1.26 billion in royalties in 2000, according to the Assn. of University Technology Managers.
Stanford, for one, owns nearly all patents granted to inventions made in its lab and last year reaped $41.2 million in royalties, said Katharine Ku, the school's director of technology transfer. Stanford keeps a third of the royalties, its inventors get one-third and the inventors' departments receive the rest. Other U.S. schools are less generous to the inventors.
At Cambridge, some dons fear that taking away researchers' control over their work would make it impossible for them to share ideas freely and make sure they're used in the way that benefits the most people.
Cambridge promises that it will not commercialize an idea against the will of its originator.
Biotechnology writer Paul Elias contributed to this report.