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Senate endorses change in copyright policy
Venturing into uncharted territory created by the explosion of new multimedia products, the Faculty Senate last week endorsed a new policy that would require members of the Stanford community to assign their copyrights to the university if "significant use" is made of university services or resources.
In sometimes impassioned debate, faculty members wrestled with issues raised by the development of CD-ROMs, computer-based instructional programs and databases that have blurred traditional lines of ownership in academia. In the end they agreed to make the new policy deliberately vague because the future impact of new technologies is so uncertain.
"This is fundamentally something for which there exists no perfect solution," economics Professor Roger Noll said. "And that's because of uncertainties."
Several members of the Senate expressed reservations about the policy change, although very few opposed it in the voice vote that followed more than an hour of debate.
Discussion on the issue was spearheaded by J. W. Goodman, senior associate dean of the School of Engineering and 1997-98 chairman of the senate's Committee on Research. He and others emphasized that traditional use by faculty of university-owned personal computers and libraries and limited use of secretarial and administrative help would not fall under the policy's definition of "significant use" of Stanford resources.
President Gerhard Casper said that some administrators and faculty members are concerned about a potential scenario in which Stanford might not profit from a product that required substantial university resources to develop.
"We are worried about the 'killer application,'" he said. "We would be very worried if that came out of the coursework of our university and we were left out there in the cold with some for-profit outfit plus a faculty member reaping the benefits of decades of curricular work to which there has been some departmental input and so on."
Casper, who chairs a committee on information technology of the Association of American Universities, said the issue was being debated nationally. He urged the senate to "send notice to the world that we are watching this carefully and everybody should be on guard."
The senate endorsed a new policy that would be in effect for no more than three years, during which time a "broadly representative" faculty committee would continue to examine copyright issues. Any proposed extension or change to the policy would come back to the senate for its approval.
Goodman said the need for a new policy came from the advent of "CD-ROMs, video, audio, both analog and digital, databases [and] electronic books. In these cases, perhaps in many of these cases, there may be a need for the institution . . . to invest considerable sums of its own money in enabling these creations. The issue, then, is what are the implications of such institutional investments in terms of who owns what."
He noted that current policy does not distinguish cases in which the university makes an investment other than claiming university ownership of "institutional works."
"I'm not convinced there are good reasons for changing the policy," said chemistry Professor Hans Andersen. Under current rules and procedures, he said the university could cite professors who misused Stanford resources by finding them in violation of the conflict-of-interest policy.
"If you're trying to protect the university, I think what you really need are criteria for what is acceptable use what is a reasonable or acceptable way of using the university resources in activities that might lead to a textbook," he said.
Andersen said the vagueness of the proposed new policy could end up in a "very messy lawsuit" if, for example, a faculty member wrote a textbook but his or her alleged misuse of university resources only came to light when the text, years later, became successful.
In addition, he asked, "How does the university or how should the university participate in these enormous revenues that are going to come flowing in from the information revolution?" He suggested a contractual relationship to clarify the lines of participation in individual cases.
Biological sciences Professor Craig Heller was also uncomfortable with the policy's lack of guidance. "How do you resolve a situation when you get to the end of the line, you've used a half-time university programmer for a quarter, you've used other resources, and all of a sudden you realize this is something that should be commercialized?"
"I think it would be valuable for us to try and tighten up and establish exactly what standards we mean by 'significant use,'" said engineering-economic systems Professor Ross Shachter.
Charles Kruger, vice provost for research, responded by noting that the wording in the university's current patent policy, while "similarly vague" to the proposed copyright policy, has nonetheless worked well.
"There are questions about use that need to get resolved from time to time," Kruger said. "But they're not overly burdensome and tend to be resolved in a departmental or school level."
Addressing Andersen, Casper said faculty members frequently own the copyright to books that generate little or no income. As far as "the huge amount of money that is to be made in future uses of information technology well, maybe there is and maybe there isn't. Nobody really knows, nobody has a clue," he said.
Noll found virtue in the policy's vagueness.
"To make a regulatory rule now about faculty behavior or university behavior on the prospect of a technology that is progressing extraordinarily rapidly and in unpredictable ways would be foolish," he said.