This is an email from Thomas Hales to the Pitt math department on January 13, 2016.
I am writing about the policy review of copyrights, patents, and
conflict of interest that is taking place at Pitt. On January 12,
Kathy Blee sent an email, soliciting input about intellectual property issues.
Comments are due by January 29.
The intellectual property (IP) situation for faculty and students has
deteriorated considerably during my years at Pitt, and I worry about
the possible results of the current policy review. I worry
particularly because of the attempt by the University in 2014 to get
faculty to sign an IP assignment,
I hereby irrevocably assign and transfer to the University my rights, title and interest to all intellectual property that I conceive create and/or invent during my employment or association with the University and to which the University has rights pursuant to the Policies.
(See Dennis Curran’s editorial about this in the University Times, November 6, 2014.) I lost considerable trust in the administration when it made threats (grant funding restrictions and termination of access to University resources) against those who would not sign. As you recall, the administration eventually eased up, but now we are facing a new round of IP uncertainty.
In brief, in 2011 Stanford lost a Supreme Court case
(Stanford-vs-Roche) in which the court clearly affirmed that IP
belongs in the hands of the original creators (researchers, scholars,
etc.) unless there are signed agreements to the contrary. Unilateral
university policy cannot transfer IP rights to the university. In
response, universities throughout the United States are now using
various means to pressure researchers to sign away IP ownership.
Why does IP matter? Academic freedom means little if it is not
accompanied by the right of scholars and researchers to distribute
their ideas and the fruits of their ideas as they see fit. Whoever
controls the IP also controls the distribution of the ideas. The Pitt
policy (02-02-03 July 5, 1988) on the obligations and responsibilities
of tenured faculty states that faculty have an obligation “to uphold
academic freedom against invasion or abuse.” Such a time has come.
I’ll review a few passages from Pitt’s 1990 copyright policy and its
revision in 2006 to show how policies are moving in a bad direction.
In the copyright policy of June 29, 1990 (which was in effect when I
arrived in 2001), it was clearly stated that “The University of
Pittsburgh affirms that, except as specifically exempted by this
policy, faculty, staff, and students are entitled to claim copyright
ownership, including world-wide rights, in the following works
authored by them: books, articles, educational coursework,…” etc.
In that policy, “works for hire” were narrowly limited to those works
whose production was specifically directed and supervised by the
University. (According to the Constitution and copyright law, the
original creators are the IP owners except in the case of works for hire.)
(The policy is available on the way-back machine.)
In the revision of the copyright policy on September 5, 2006, the
University expanded its definition of work for hire to include all
works created “in the course of his or her employment,” but then goes
on to carve out certain exceptions. In other words, starting in 2006,
the University adopted the view that it has the right to whatever
intellectual property it wants, but through its largesse, it allows a
few ownership rights to pass from the University back to faculty
members. The policy describes faculty IP rights as “exceptions.” This
is fundamentally at odds with traditions of academic freedom that
extend over the centuries.
The 2006 policy places severe restrictions on the distribution of
classroom materials. For example, the policy states that faculty are
not allowed to post videos of their lectures without written
permission from the University. In a world that has become broadly
digital and multimedia oriented, do we want such restrictions to
remain on the dissemination of knowledge?
The 2006 policy also asserts ownership of all sponsored research:
“Where copyrighted materials are developed in the course of sponsored
research funded by an outside agency or entity pursuant to a written
agreement, copyright ownership of such materials shall rest with the
University unless it is stated otherwise by the terms of such
See the AAUP amicus brief for a discussion of the (flawed) legal reasoning that led to such ownership assertions.
Things might get worse for us in various ways under this policy
review, unless we as a community do something.
- The University might assert even more aggressively that it owns all
- The University might require the registration of scholarly materials
and might assert the right to distribute scholarly materials. (This
might be done for good reasons such as open access policies, but it
still means taking property rights from scholars.)
- The University might assert stronger control of teaching materials
(now that it is clear that MOOCs might
be a way to make money from courses).
- SCAs (strategic corporate alliances) might turn intellectual
property over to corporations in ways that go against the wishes and
freedoms of individual researchers.
- (Add your own concerns here.)
Such policies could easily be at odds with the fundamental values of
institutions of higher learning. A motion I proposed was passed last
April by the Faculty Assembly to issue a report on these and related
matters. This report seems to have stalled in committee meetings.
I hope that we can move forward and find a strong voice in the Pitt
community for the protection of faculty, student, and staff rights to
intellectual property. If there are others who are willing to
organize our efforts, please step forward.