Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

The Academic Barriers of Commercialisation

Last year, the university through which I obtained my degree celebrated a “milestone” anniversary, meaning that I got even more announcements, notices and other such things than I was already getting from them before. Fortunately, not everything published into this deluge is bound up in proprietary formats (as one brochure was, sitting on a Web page in Flash-only form) or only reachable via a dubious “Libyan link-shortener” (as certain things were published via a social media channel that I have now quit). It is indeed infuriating to see one of the links in a recent HTML/plain text hybrid e-mail message using a redirect service hosted on the university’s own alumni sub-site, sending the reader to a URL, which will redirect them off into the great unknown and maybe even back to the original site. But such things are what one comes to expect on today’s Internet with all the unquestioning use of random “cloud” services, each one profiling the unsuspecting visitor and betraying their privacy to make a few extra cents or pence.

But anyway, upon following a more direct – but still redirected – link to an article on the university Web site, I found myself looking around to see what gets published there these days. Personally, I find the main university Web site rather promotional and arguably only superficially informative – you can find out the required grades to take courses along with supposed student approval ratings and hypothetical salary expectations upon qualifying – but it probably takes more digging to get at the real detail than most people would be willing to do. I wouldn’t mind knowing what they teach now in their computer science courses, for instance. I guess I’ll get back to looking into that later.

Gatekeepers of Knowledge

However, one thing did catch my eye as I browsed around the different sections, encountering the “technology transfer” department with the expected rhetoric about maximising benefits to society: the inevitable “IP” policy in all its intimidating length, together with an explanatory guide to that policy. Now, I am rather familiar with such policies from my time at my last academic employer, having been obliged to sign some kind of statement of compliance at one point, but then apparently not having to do so when starting a subsequent contract. It was not as if enlightenment had come calling at the University of Oslo between these points in time such that the “IP rights” agreement now suddenly didn’t feature in the hiring paperwork; it was more likely that such obligations had presumably been baked into everybody’s terms of employment as yet another example of the university upper management’s dubious organisational reform and questionable human resources practices.

Back at Heriot-Watt University, credit is perhaps due to the authors of their explanatory guide to try and explain the larger policy document, because it is most likely that most people aren’t going to get through that much longer document and retain a clear head. But one potentially unintended reason for credit is that by being presented with a much less opaque treatment of the policy and its motivations, we are able to see with enhanced clarity many of the damaging misconceptions that have sadly become entrenched in higher education and academia, including the ways in which such policies actually do conflict with the sharing of knowledge that academic endeavour is supposed to be all about.

So, we get the sales pitch about new things needing investment…

However, often new technologies and inventions are not fully developed because development needs investment, and investment needs commercial returns, and to ensure commercial returns you need something to sell, and a freely available idea cannot be sold.

If we ignore various assumptions about investment or the precise economic mechanisms supposedly required to bring about such investment, we can immediately note that ideas on their own aren’t worth anything anyway, freely available or not. Although the Norwegian Industrial Property Office (or the Norwegian Patent Office if we use a more traditional name) uses the absurd vision slogan “turning ideas into values” (it should probably read “value”, but whatever), this perhaps says more about greedy profiteering through the sale of government-granted titles bound to arbitrary things than it does about what kinds of things have any kind of inherent value that you can take to the bank.

But assuming that we have moved beyond the realm of simple ideas and have entered the realm of non-trivial works, we find that we have also entered the realm of morality and attitude management:

That is why, in some cases, it is better for your efforts not to be published immediately, but instead to be protected and then published, for protection gives you something to sell, something to sell can bring in investment, and investment allows further development. Therefore in the interests of advancing the knowledge within the field you work in, it is important that you consider the commercial potential of your work from the outset, and if necessary ensure it is properly protected before you publish.

Once upon a time, the most noble pursuit in academic research was to freely share research with others so that societal, scientific and technological progress could be made. Now it appears that the average researcher should treat it as their responsibility to conceal their work from others, seek “protection” on it, and then release the encumbered details for mere perusal and the conditional participation of those once-valued peers. And they should, of course, be wise to the commercial potential of the work, whatever that is. Naturally, “intellectual property” offices in such institutions have an “if in doubt, see us” policy, meaning that they seek to interfere with research as soon as possible, and should someone fail to have “seen them”, that person’s loyalty may very well be called into question as if they had somehow squandered their employer’s property. In some institutions, this could very easily get people marginalised or “reorganised” if not immediately or obviously fired.

The Rewards of Labour

It is in matters of property and ownership where things get very awkward indeed. Many people would accept that employees of an organisation are producing output that becomes the property of that organisation. What fewer people might accept is that the customers of an organisation are also subject to having their own output taken to be the property of that organisation. The policy guide indicates that even undergraduate students may also be subject to an obligation to assign ownership of their work to the university: those visiting the university supposedly have to agree to this (although it doesn’t say anything about what their “home institution” might have to say about that), and things like final year projects are supposedly subject to university ownership.

So, just because you as a student have a supervisor bound by commercialisation obligations, you end up not only paying tuition fees to get your university education (directly or through taxation), but you also end up having your own work taken off you because it might be seen as some element in your supervisor’s “portfolio”. I suppose this marks a new low in workplace regulation and standards within a sector that already skirts the law with regard to how certain groups are treated by their employers.

One can justifiably argue that employees of academic institutions should not be allowed to run away with work funded by those institutions, particularly when such funding originally comes from other sources such as the general public. After all, such work is not exactly the private property of the researchers who created it, and to treat it as such would deny it to those whose resources made it possible in the first place. Any claims about “rightful rewards” needing to be given are arguably made to confuse rational thinking on the matter: after all, with appropriate salaries, the researchers are already being rewarded doing work that interests and stimulates them (unlike a lot of people in the world of work). One can argue that academics increasingly suffer from poorer salaries, working conditions and career stability, but such injustices are not properly remedied by creating other injustices to supposedly level things out.

A policy around what happens with the work done in an academic institution is important. But just as individuals should not be allowed to treat broadly-funded work as their own private property, neither should the institution itself claim complete ownership and consider itself entitled to do what it wishes with the results. It may be acting as a facilitator to allow research to happen, but by seeking to intervene in the process of research, it risks acting as an inhibitor. Consider the following note about “confidential information”:

This is, in short, anything which, if you told people about, might damage the commercial interests of the university. It specifically includes information relating to intellectual property that could be protected, but isn’t protected yet, and which if you told people about couldn’t be protected, and any special know how or clever but non patentable methods of doing things, like trade secrets. It specifically includes all laboratory notebooks, including those stored in an electronic fashion. You must be very careful with this sort of information. This is of particular relevance to something that may be patented, because if other people know about it then it can’t be.

Anyone working in even a moderately paranoid company may have read things like this. But here the context is an environment where knowledge should be shared to benefit and inform the research community. Instead, one gets the impression that the wish to control the propagation of knowledge is so great that some people would rather see the details of “clever but non patentable methods” destroyed than passed on openly for others to benefit from. Indeed, one must question whether “trade secrets” should even feature in a university environment at all.

Of course, the obsession with “laboratory notebooks”, “methods of doing things” and “trade secrets” in such policies betrays the typical origins of such drives for commercialisation: the apparently rich pickings to be had in the medical, pharmaceutical and biosciences domains. It is hardly a coincidence that the University of Oslo intensified its dubious “innovation” efforts under a figurehead with a background (or an interest) in exactly those domains: with a narrow personal focus, an apparent disdain for other disciplines, and a wider commercial atmosphere that gives such a strategy a “dead cert” air of impending fortune, we should perhaps expect no more of such a leadership creature (and his entourage) than the sum of that creature’s instincts and experiences. But then again, we should demand more from such people when their role is to cultivate an institution of learning and not to run a private research organisation at the public’s expense.

The Dirty Word

At no point in the policy guide does the word “monopoly” appear. Given that such a largely technical institution would undoubtedly be performing research where the method of “protection” would involve patents being sought, omitting the word “monopoly” might be that document’s biggest flaw. Heriot-Watt University originates from the merger of two separate institutions, one of which was founded by the well-known pioneer of steam engine technology, James Watt.

Recent discussion of Watt’s contributions to the development and proliferation of such technology has brought up claims that Watt’s own patents – the things that undoubtedly made him wealthy enough to fund an educational organisation – actually held up progress in the domain concerned for a number of decades. While he was clearly generous and sensible enough to spend his money on worthy causes, one can always challenge whether the questionable practices that resulted in the accumulation of such wealth can justify the benefits from the subsequent use of that wealth, particularly if those practices can be regarded as having had negative effects of society and may even have increased wealth inequality.

Questioning philanthropy is not a particularly fashionable thing to do. In capitalist societies, wealthy people are often seen as having made their fortunes in an honest fashion, enjoying a substantial “benefit of the doubt” that this was what really occurred. Criticising a rich person giving money to ostensibly good causes is seen as unkind to both the generous donor and to those receiving the donations. But we should question the means through which the likes of Bill Gates (in our time) and James Watt (in his own time) made their fortunes and the power that such fortunes give to such people to direct money towards causes of their own personal choosing, not to mention the way in which wealthy people also choose to influence public policy and the use of money given by significantly less wealthy individuals – the rest of us – gathered through taxation.

But back to monopolies. Can they really be compatible with the pursuit and sharing of knowledge that academia is supposed to be cultivating? Just as it should be shocking that secretive “confidentiality” rules exist in an academic context, it should appal us that researchers are encouraged to be competitively hostile towards their peers.

Removing the Barriers

It appears that some well-known institutions understand that the unhindered sharing of their work is their primary mission. MIT Media Lab now encourages the licensing of software developed under its roof as Free Software, not requiring special approval or any other kind of institutional stalling that often seems to take place as the “innovation” vultures pick over the things they think should be monetised. Although proprietary licensing still appears to be an option for those within the Media Lab organisation, at least it seems that people wanting to follow their principles and make their work available as Free Software can do so without being made to feel bad about it.

As an academic institution, we believe that in many cases we can achieve greater impact by sharing our work.

So says the director of the MIT Media Lab. It says a lot about the times we live in that this needs to be said at all. Free Software licensing is, as a mechanism to encourage sharing, a natural choice for software, but we should also expect similar measures to be adopted for other kinds of works. Papers and articles should at the very least be made available using content licences that permit sharing, even if the licence variants chosen by authors might seek to prohibit the misrepresentation of parts of their work by prohibiting remixes or derived works. (This may sound overly restrictive, but one should consider the way in which scientific articles are routinely misrepresented by climate change and climate science deniers.)

Free Software has encouraged an environment where sharing is safely and routinely done. Licences like the GNU General Public Licence seek to shield recipients from things like patent threats, particularly from organisations which might appear to want to share their works, but which might be tempted to use patents to regulate the further use of those works. Even in realms where patents have traditionally been tolerated, attempts have been made to shield others from the effects of patents, intended or otherwise: the copyleft hardware movement demands that shared hardware designs are patent-free, for instance.

In contrast, one might think that despite the best efforts of the guide’s authors, all the precautions and behavioural self-correction it encourages might just drive the average researcher to distraction. Or, just as likely, to ignoring most of the guidelines and feigning ignorance if challenged by their “innovation”-obsessed superiors. But in the drive to monetise every last ounce of effort there is one statement that is worth remembering:

If intellectual property is not assigned, this can create problems in who is allowed to exploit the work, and again work can go to waste due to a lack of clarity over who owns what.

In other words, in an environment where everybody wants a share of the riches, it helps to have everybody’s interests out in the open so that there may be no surprises later on. Now, it turns out that unclear ownership and overly casual management of contributions is something that has occasionally threatened Free Software projects, resulting in more sophisticated thinking about how contributions are managed.

And it is precisely this combination of Free Software licensing, or something analogous for other domains, with proper contribution and attribution management that will extend safe and efficient sharing of knowledge to the academic realm. Researchers just cannot have the same level of confidence when dealing with the “technology transfer” offices of their institution and of other institutions. Such offices only want to look after themselves while undermining everyone beyond the borders of their own fiefdoms.

Divide and Rule

It is unfortunate that academic institutions feel that they need to “pull their weight” and have to raise funds to make up for diminishing public funding. By turning their backs on the very reason for their own existence and seeking monopolies instead of sharing knowledge, they unwittingly participate in the “divide and rule” tactics blatantly pursued in the political arena: that everyone must fight each other for all that is left once the lion’s share of public funding has been allocated to prestige megaprojects and schemes that just happen to benefit the well-connected, the powerful and the influential people in society the most.

A properly-funded education sector is an essential component of a civilised society, and its institutions should not be obliged to “sharpen their elbows” in the scuffle for funding and thus deprive others of knowledge just to remain viable. Sadly, while austerity politics remains fashionable, it may be up to us in the Free Software realm to remind academia of its obligations and to show that sustainable ways of sharing knowledge exist and function well in the “real world”.

Indeed, it is up to us to keep such institutions honest and to prevent advocates of monopoly-driven “innovation” from being able to insist that their way is the only way, because just as “divide and rule” politics erects barriers between groups in wider society, commercialisation erects barriers that inhibit the essential functions of academic pursuit. And such barriers ultimately risk extinguishing academia altogether, along with all the benefits its institutions bring to society. If my university were not reinforcing such barriers with its “IP” policy, maybe its anniversary as a measure of how far we have progressed from monopolies and intellectual selfishness would have been worth celebrating after all.

Leave a Reply