Faculty members propose intellectual property rights for scholarly work

The issue of intellectual property rights has become an increasingly prevalent topic on university campuses across the country due to its nuanced, and often abused, role in the legal system. Most colleges now have official policies on the topic, but the College contrasts its counterparts with its lack of clearly defined standards.

This past summer, Associate Provost Chris Winters formed an adhoc committee of faculty members to begin drafting a policy that would protect the intellectual property of faculty, students and staff. There was no direct impetus for the formation of the committee, but rather a collective sense among some members of the faculty that steps should be taken to protect intellectual thought on campus.

Winters explained that without a clearly defined intellectual property policy, the College is theoretically unrestrained in claiming ownership over the intellectual achievements of its students, faculty and staff. Ambiguity shrouds the ownership of books, papers, art, course materials, research and all other forms of scholarly work, leaving members of the College community unsure as to what conditions allow the College to claim co-ownership of intellectual property developed by its employees and students.

Committee member Morgan McGuire, associate professor of computer science, acknowledged that the College has been respectful of the authors and their works, but articulated the potential for many problems stemming from the lack of a clear policy. Potential problems include “illegal use of the College’s names and logos by outsiders, intellectual property theft of inventions and works created by faculty, students and staff and reluctance from external scholarly collaborators or business investors to engage us without a clear policy.” He said, “The College exists for education and scholarship and must take a responsible role protecting these. I believe the intent of this initiative is to codify existing practice in good faith and for the ultimate benefit of most of the Williams community.”

Committee member Jon Bakija, professor of economics and chair of the political economy program, called the policy presented at the board meeting on Feb. 10 “overdue,” referencing the policies in place at most other liberal arts colleges and larger research universities.

Rather than pull from fragmented past attempts to draft a workable policy at the College, the committee opted to draw from the guidelines in place at Wellesley and Bates, resulting in a policy the committee considers more favorable to students, faculty and staff than that which exists at many larger research universities.

The seven-page policy details the exact definition of scholarly work: a diverse array of “pedagogical, literary, scientific and other creative work,” from journal articles, laboratory procedures, inventions, advances and discoveries to software, examinations and quizzes, problem sets and syllabi. Bakija noted that the implementa-tion of a clearly defined policy would be in the interest of the College itself. Though Winters confirms the college will not pursue patenting as a potential revenue stream, he says it will benefit the College by helping the institution to avoid disputes and ensure its reputation as a bastion of intellectual innovation and achievement.

The proposed policy excludes intellectual property that involves an identity interest, functional interest or exceptional use of college resources. It deems exceptional those cases in which the College must assert its identity to protect its name, logo and autonomy. The document thoroughly outlines the reach of the College in such disputes and limits the potential for any co-ownership claims made outside of these set boundaries.

The final draft of the intellectual property proposal will be put to a vote at the faculty meeting on March 9, but will then need approval by the board of trustees, a process without a definite beginning or end.

“The college’s primary interest is in clarity,” Winters said. “This policy seeks to clarify, and in every meaningful way, leans toward giving faculty [students and staff] as much ownership as possible.”

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