It might seem presumptuous for a chemist to suggest mechanisms for funding the arts, but perhaps there are lessons which have been learned in the sciences and could be transferable. The sciences, and in Oxford notably Chemistry, have generated significant sums of money by exploiting the intellectual property derived from the research of academics. That one department has generated for the central university something approaching £100 million. Of this some £40 million has been in straight cash with the rest being the value of the university’s holdings in publicly quoted spin-outs and estimates of the fair value of its shares in companies which are still private. The recent much-publicised success of Oxford Nanopore has led to the suggestion that that one company may have a value of a billion dollars.
This activity dates from the time when the university claimed the ownership of the intellectual property of work done by scientists as part of their university employment and the creation of the technology transfer company Isis Innovation. Although the university owns the IP, the mechanisms for exploitation do reward the academics who generate the patents or know-how which is the basis of the licence income or equity in the spin-out company. Although there is no fixed split, typically when a company is formed the university gets 25% of the shares with the academic or academics having an equal holding. In the case of licence income there is a sliding scale whereby the academic gets most of the initial income but with a diminishing share as the returns grow.
Although there is little difference in principle between a scientist doing his or her research in a university laboratory and a humanities don working in a university library there is a completely opposite situation in terms of intellectual property. If academics write books then the intellectual property is the copyright which belongs to the author. Amongst university academics there are some talented writers who make very large sums as royalties on books which are entirely based on the teaching and research which they are paid to do by the university. It is hard to see how this differs from the situation of a scientist doing laboratory research.
If the university claimed ownership of the copyright and a generous split of royalties were agreed, perhaps a 50:50 split, there would still be a strong incentive for academics to write books and the university income could be used to fund the humanities.
Oxford university & IP Group Plc
Graham Richards is author of Spin-Outs: Creating Businesses from University Intellectual Property and University Intellectual Property: A Source of Finance and Impact.