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I work in Italy on a research group working on the conservation of cultural heritage analyzing artworks. I had some discussion with my lab on what job or project the university shouldn't accept to avoid overlapping with the private market as unfair competition.

For instance, in my field, many papers are written as a case study where artworks are analyzed by the laboratory with conventional techniques and procedures and the results are published. In fact, there are small companies and freelancers that provided the same service and I think this is a case where the university might be guilty of unfair competition because it offers the same service for free. Of course some times there isn't the money to perform the service while the artwork could benefit from this research for their conservation so this practice sometimes could have a positive impact on the society.

I am aware that in this specific case we are not committing any crime but I wanted to reason about the role of the university. Are there any guidelines, or law related to the role of the university and what is considered unfair competition? Where I can ask for clarification?

This is not restricted to my particular field because I've found the same problems also dealing with other disciplines.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 16 at 13:01
  • Why the downvotes? I know might be an uncomfortable question for someone, but any feedback is appreciated... – G M Sep 16 at 13:12
  • I didn't downvote, but I guess it's because your question presupposes quite a lot. Asking "How can I be sure that..." assumes that this is something that universities/researchers must attend to legally and/or ethically. Also, "unfair competition" is poorly defined here... sure, it has a legal definition, but what you're describing clearly doesn't fit that definition. – eykanal Sep 16 at 14:06
  • @eykanal thanks for your feedback! how would you define the concept in other terms? I am open to suggestions – G M Sep 16 at 18:49
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EU law prohibits (or at least limits) states from giving businesses an unfair competitive advantage through subsidising them. These rules may come into play when universities offer services that compete with commercial players. This has been the subject of discussion in cases where universities would offer to do contract research for third parties, and would charge only for the the man hours and not for general overhead, allowing them to offer the research much cheaper than competitors.

I think (but I am not a lawyer) that this should not be an issue for the case at hand, since the university is offering the said service for free. I.e. they are not gaining any (direct) commercial benefit from offering the service. If the university were charging money for this service, it might be different.

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    Offering the service for free would not make any difference: It would be more of an unfair advantage than charging somewhat below the fair price: it's the owner of the heritage good that receives the subsidy here, not the university. – cbeleites Sep 14 at 17:51
  • But: there's a difference between a research cooperation (which is not a commercial activity of the university,) and the university providing research services which is considered a commercial activity and subject to the State Aid laws. – cbeleites Sep 14 at 18:36
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I think your assumption that the university and private evaluators "offer the same service" is flawed. A private analysis will be delivered to a client and not to the general public. Being private, it may give some competitive advantage and so has monetary value. The university, on the other hand provides an information "service" to the general public so that all can benefit.

To "forbid" the university from doing some sort of research so that the possible results could be locked up for private rather than general benefit seems to be a pernicious idea.

And, the "service" of the university isn't actually free (as in beer). Resources go in to it that are paid in a variety of ways, sometimes from public monies since the public benefits. But the information it provides is free (as in speech).


But for your question about law, note that laws vary from place to place, and not all laws are wise.

  • The first part is wrong. Even if the information was exclusive to the client, it is still not unfair competition. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 13 at 10:59
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, I didn't claim it was. And I don't understand why you think I did. Private information may have competitive value. Full stop. It isn't unfair. It is just value. – Buffy Sep 13 at 11:03
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, You are misreading Buffy's point. Buffy's comment doesn't bother getting into the issue of what would genuinely be unfair competition. The point is that they are fundamentally different services. – JoshuaZ Sep 13 at 12:34
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    @AnonymousPhysicist The question is predicated on the assumption that the services are equal. What's off topic about an answer that addresses that? – pip install frisbee Sep 13 at 14:07
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    Thanks, some times we have worked with company that provied to the institutions (e.g. Museum) the data than the istitution used the data. This I think is the right praxis. I know that the service is in fact not free what I am saying is that the goverment founding should be used to do reserach and not providing services that other companies can already provied. – G M Sep 13 at 14:13
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Keep in mind that universities are typically either government-run institutions or non-profit organizations; in either case, their principal purpose is to benefit society in some way, rather than to earn a profit for their owners or shareholders. I think it's pretty well accepted for such organizations to provide goods and services for free or cheap, for the purposes of creating a social benefit, even if there are commercial businesses that also sell those goods or services. This is fundamentally different from typical "unfair competition" where a business sells goods at low cost for the purpose of eliminating the competition or getting customers locked in.

You can think of many analogies which most people find totally uncontroversial:

  • A local government funds a public library, where people can come and read books for free, with the goal of helping educate the population. Is this unfair competition with local bookstores?

  • A church opens a soup kitchen which gives away free meals, with the goal of helping the needy. Is this unfair competition with local restaurants?

  • The government operates and subsidizes a bus or metro system, funded mostly by taxes, whose fares don't cover the full costs of construction and operation. The goal is to help people get around, reduce traffic, and promote economic activity. Is this unfair competition with taxi companies?

Here, your university is providing expert analysis, presumably with the goal of increasing knowledge about art and preserving important cultural artworks. You aren't doing it to earn a profit. I don't see any problem.

Of course, this may depend in part on your political and philosophical views about how economies ought to operate, capitalism and socialism and free markets and so forth. But I think what I've said is pretty mainstream.

If you want to know whether your activities are legal, you should ask your university counsel rather than the Internet. But I'll be very surprised if there is any problem.

  • I like your asnwer but: in case of local library the goverment is not giving away books for free this would ruin the bookstores (and this is actually what I am talking about in my question) also the church it's okay because it's a soup but if it's the best meal ever done because you have the best machinery due to government foundings this I don't think is right. Also, the metro is not the same service as a taxi. – G M Sep 13 at 14:16
  • "Soup kitchen" is just an informal term - churches often serve full meals that are at least as high-quality as an inexpensive restaurant, say. I'm sure you can think of many other examples if you try. A big one might be government-sponsored health care - is it unfair competition with private hospitals? – Nate Eldredge Sep 13 at 18:54
  • I think we should make a distinction between primary needs and services. – G M Sep 13 at 19:55
  • The primary function of the hospital is to do provide health care but the primary function of the university to provide educational or research services not any service – G M Sep 14 at 0:00
  • We actually had quite some political discussions about something similar to your soup kitchen scenario: there was the idea that unemployed should do something for the public good, e.g. gardening public parks for subsidized wages. This was raising concerns that gardening companies would suddenly face what equals the state becoming a huge competitor of theirs, who'd be abusing power (to tell unemployed to do that work) and offer those services at dumping prices. BTW: public here are usually private companies who bid for governmental contracts to service particular lines. – cbeleites Sep 14 at 18:06
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This is not unfair competition.

Unfair competition is an outright crime, such as monopolistic practices, fraud, or libelling the competition.

Giving away a service to a few clients is not one of those things. Also, you are not giving away the lab's services. Somebody is paying the lab to provide these services. You just didn't tell us who is paying.

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    I assume the legal definition of unfair competition varies by jurisdiction and may not be completely captured in the wikipedia article. But I agree that this isn't a case of it, legally. But the common usage of the term is a bit broader than the law. – Buffy Sep 13 at 11:10
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    Yes, I was talking about the idea rather the crime it self. – G M Sep 13 at 14:18
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    @GM That does not change my answer. We are not lawyers here. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 13 at 20:13
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    yes exactly, because we are not lawyers I am not judging it in strictly legal terms. I am talking about the idea of unfair competition. In my case, the government is paying so it would be probably similar to state aid to a company: ec.europa.eu/competition/state_aid/overview/index_en.html – G M Sep 13 at 20:22
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    Giving away free products can potentially be called monopolistic. As for law, it's all about the exceptions and complex cases, not the cases that easily fit our definitions. Imagine if the US postal service (a govt agency which operates for profit, has a protected monopoly in letter delivery, but competes in package delivery with private firms) decided to start delivering packages for free. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 13 at 23:08

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