IP for nuthin' and your deals for free

In IP relationships, I talk about the “Big Five”:

  1. Ownership
  2. Control
  3. Money
  4. Attribution
  5. Risk

In the most basic treatment of IP, folks tend to introduce these in binaries.  Perhaps the most common is ownership for money.  But in licensing, it’s often control for money and risk.   In scholarly publishing, it is often ownership for attribution with divided control.  In practice, all five are typically in play all the time.

University IP policies, however, make it out that it’s ownership for nothing, out of duty or to avoid charges of conflict of interest or other claims of malfeasance, or simply to accept that the employer has made a claim that cannot be resisted.   The apparatus of policy then has three purposes:  one, to make the claim of ownership for nothing stick; and two, to cast the claim in such fluffy language that it sounds right and is sufficiently impenetrable that no one has an easy time challenging it; and three, to make the resulting arrangement appear mutual and fair.  Usually this last bit comes down to a royalty sharing schedule that is anything but mutual and fair.

A typical IP policy this way might read, boiled down to a goo at the bottom of the pan:

All your inventions are belong to us.  You don’t want or care about your inventions.  You will bungle your inventions and we all know it.   The public fears this outcome, you selfish brats.  If we can’t do anything with your inventions, which are really our inventions, too bad.  If you want them back, we will consider that, but only after we are sure they are truly worthless.  If we do something with them, and surprise ourselves and make a pile of money, then you should worship us that you get a share at all, and that share is __________ , which you agree is fair, because we could have given you a lot less, you fortunate nothing-persons.

I know, put this way it is shocking stuff for the victorian bureaucrat that cannot stand to see anything plain left uncovered with pretty language.   This is the essence of the policy, however.   Stated starkly, the bargain is:

We own everything.  We owe you nothing.  That said, if we make money beyond our costs, you get this share:  _________.  If you want rights back, beg for them.  Take it or leave it.

Everything else is by way of prettiness to add a mutuality and “transparency” to the implied processes.  The effort then is improvements and efficiencies.  How to make the ownership claim stick?  How to ensure that there is no accountability to individuals as a result?  How to get the tech transfer program to make money (for the institution, for slush funds!).  How to deal with exceptions and complaints.  How to conduct training to minimize exceptions and complaints.  How to spin all this to the public and the rest of the university community as a good thing, the best thing.  How to focus any efforts on change in improving any of the above–better ownership claims, better limitation of risk, better inventor docility and compliance, better money making,  better beating down anything different, better spin.

If you think this depiction of IP policy is cynical, time for a gut check on what side you are on.   Look in the mirror.  What is it that you really want when it comes to research events such as invention, and to intangible assets such as patents, and to the use of this patents if at all to encourage innovation?   At the heart of it, in your heart of it, is it love of administrative order?  fear of disputes?  irritation at the bother of it all?  Just asking how much you want your MTV .  That badly?

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