Great idea, thanks: intellectual property and theft

How serious an issue is the theft of intellectual property, and who does it affect? ALERAI

If ideas are currency in a knowledge-driven industry such as scientific research, why is intellectual property (IP) so often taken without consent?

The majority of ideas generated through scientific endeavour are not protected by copyright or patenting, and an essential part of the scientific process is the sharing of ideas and building on the knowledge of others. The trouble starts when those ideas are taken without acknowledgement.

The culprits

We all know good ideas are hard to come by, making them an attractive target for poachers.

Thomas Gehrke

Rich hunting grounds such as grant and ethics review panels offer great opportunities for reading the latest unpublished – and thus unprotected – research. These are where new ideas first see the light of day.

Through involvement in such processes, researchers are privy to the latest plans of our peers and, sometimes, the work of our direct competitors.

A colleague recently shared an example of this phenomenon with me. A researcher submitted a grant application to an international philanthropic agency that subsequently rejected it, but awarded the project (and money) to a local group connected to the funding agency.

That’s an extreme case, no doubt, and anecdotal by necessity, but all scientists are susceptible to similar experiences.

Reasons for theft

Fortunately, collaborative work by professional researchers - by its very nature - often does not involve IP theft. But problems still arise when individuals lack appropriate research training and understanding of IP, or when individuals are hungry for power and impact in the absence of ability.

For those outside of scientific and technological development fields, ideas may not be considered as primary to existence in the same way as tangible tasks such as, say, clinical work or the construction of goods.

The lack of awareness - or lack of respect - for the generation of ideas (which by its definition is a service) can lead to some awkward and potentially career-changing events.

When ego becomes part of the equation, collaborations can dissolve and previously shared IP can become incorporated into another research group’s profile, further leading to a sense of misanthropy.

The cost of stolen IP

In an ideal world, all knowledge and ideas would be shared with equal attribution to those responsible for their genesis. In a less ideal world, the capacity for the creation and execution of new research determines an individual’s ability to put food on the table. While that may seem dramatic, it is, to an extent, true for those researchers on the fellowship track.

Competition to gain access to the dwindling fellowship options available in Australia is fierce. Researchers relying on soft grant money for salary must prove their competence in developing and leading clinical research programs every four years.

Nisha A

The rich source of incredibly bright researchers means that only those with high profiles and innovative research programs make it to the next level. This competitive process means that all good ideas can be, quite literally, worth their weight in gold.

But for those whose professional survival is not dependent on fellowship success - i.e. the majority of researchers in Australia - the sharing of ideas can benefit society as a whole. From these situations an important question arises: in the highly competitive industry in which we work, is it acceptable to “borrow” ideas of others to give yourself an edge?

Or, put another way, shouldn’t all ideas be shared in order to advance collective understanding?

Balancing collaboration and IP

A common and relatively benign manifestation of non-protected IP theft involves contested authorship on publications. The Harvard academic Linda Wilcox documented the exponential growth of contested authorship over a seven-year period in the 1990s in her 1998 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In the period of her study, Wilcox charted the rise of authorship disputes from 2.3% of cases in 1991-92 to 10.7% in 1996-97 at Harvard Medical School and associated research institutions.

Given the growing reverence for authorship in both clinical and scientific forums, it can be assumed examples of disputed authorship will continue to grow. Fortunately these situations can be easily avoided by establishing memorandums of understanding at the commencement of collaborations and education for individuals entering the scientific domain for the first time.

The stakes are arguably much greater in relation to theft of IP in areas of potential commercial or discovery value. Unsurprisingly, there are more formal arrangements around IP in commercial circles in order to protect these ideas.

But a drawback of these arrangements is that they can make collaborative work far less efficient.

Miguelangel Guedez

In one of my own personal experiences with research IP in the commercial world, it took six months to set up a meeting with two leading research teams. Both universities and lab heads required a non-disclosure agreement to be signed before any exploration of collaboration could be entertained.

That situation arose despite some positive collaborations already being in place across the teams, with investigators from each institution co-supervising doctoral students with cross-institutional placements.

While I am yet to sign a confidentiality agreement when reviewing grants through the public system, I have been exposed to these measures as a matter of routine when dealing with industry partners – who are perhaps more aware of the significant financial losses that can occur when IP is distributed without consent.

Is this process the way of the future, or just another hurdle to effective collaboration?

Successful careers and collaborations can at times rely entirely on appropriate acknowledgement of intellectual contributions.

The question to ponder: is the use of someone else’s ideas theft or just streamlined knowledge transfer and exchange?