I work on statistical data analysis in neuroscience at a university, and to that end regularly develop small pieces of software. Most of that software I also publish on GitHub under the GNU General Public License. This implies that I claim and retain copyright.

I used to work in Germany, where in my (possibly mistaken?) understanding of "Wissenschaftsfreiheit" (academic freedom) this was a correct procedure. I now started to work at a UK university and stumbled across a passage in their Intellectual Property Policy:

Scholarly Works

a) The University waives its rights in the copyright in scholarly works produced solely in the furtherance of an academic career. This includes books, articles in journals, papers for conferences, study notes, original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, sound recordings, films, broadcasts, and typographical arrangements, multimedia works, photographs, and drawings, provided the material does not form part of a course or teaching materials for the University, and has not been commissioned by the University.

b) The University does not waive its rights in the intellectual property in any underlying materials on which the scholarly work is based, including software, data, databases, designs and patentable inventions.

(emphasis mine)

If I understand paragraph (b) correctly, I cannot continue to publish code under the GPL, because the copyright of the software isn't mine to begin with. The same holds for data from neuroscience experiments, and one might argue that it holds for experimental designs. This does not just seem to prohibit my personal practice, but also to stand in the way of current efforts towards Open Science (open source, open data).

My questions:

1) Is this policy (b) correct under UK intellectual property law as it pertains to academia?

2) Is such a policy usual at UK universities? If yes, how do academics publishing software usually deal with it?

3) Are there organisations in the UK which could help to convince the university to change the policy? (Open Science advocacy groups)

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    That is a (possibly common) misconception. The GPL is a license, stating what others may do with the code. In order to be able to enforce this license (there have been court cases), it is necessary to retain copyright. "Copyleft" is meant to signify that one is using copyright law in a way that preserves others' rights instead of constraining them. – A. Donda Nov 8 '19 at 16:24
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    @Time4Tea, see e.g. "Copyleft type licenses are a novel use of existing copyright law to ensure a work remains freely available." <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyleft> Not claiming copyright would make a work fall into the public domain, which would allow others to appropriate the work and restrict its use. – A. Donda Nov 8 '19 at 16:24
  • Personally, I would describe that as retaining ownership under copyright law, rather than asserting copyright. But I think this is going off on a semantic tangent, so I will delete my other comment. – Time4Tea Nov 8 '19 at 16:46

Many academics in CS publish their software and sometimes even their data, blissfully ignoring whether they are allowed to do so in their institution or not. It's unlikely to cause any trouble because institutions usually don't care too much: nobody will ever check, unless there's a potential commercial opportunity at play.

However my understanding is that IP rights for any outcome produced in the course of academic work [edited] might be shared between the institution and the author, depending on the institution/country (but IANAL of course). This doesn't mean that the institution forbids academics to publish their software/data, actually it's even very unlikely that the institution would oppose publishing open-source software, but the proper way to do this would be to ask the IP/innovation office for permission (afaik most institutions have one nowadays).

In my research centre there is an official process that we are supposed to follow whenever we want to make something publicly available. It's a simple software disclosure form where the author indicates what the software does and what kind of license they want to apply to it. The form is supposed to be reviewed by an IP officer who in my experience always validates the request. I've done it a few times myself: this additional administrative step is a bit annoying but it's not such a big effort.

  • @DanRomik I didn't say that researchers must contact the IP/innovation every time: institutions often have standard policies in place, like the waiver for papers that OP mentions in the question. I would guess that many institutions also waive their IP rights on open-source software. However if the institution policy is not available anywhere else, it is the role of the IP office to answer queries about what researchers can or cannot publish. – Erwan Nov 9 '19 at 0:36
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    In the few universities I've been (in Europe) there was such a process in place for publishing software or data. But since most researchers don't know about it and institutions don't care, I'm probably the only idiot who bothers filling these forms ;) – Erwan Nov 9 '19 at 0:43
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    @DanRomik I edited the answer. I said "depending on the institution/country" since I haven't been to every country in Europe, and this might even be university-specific. – Erwan Nov 9 '19 at 1:17
  • Thanks, this is a useful answer and I therefore upvoted it. However, I was specifically asking about the UK, and you covered only part of the three parts of my question, therefore I'm not going to accept your answer. – A. Donda Nov 11 '19 at 13:43
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    @A.Donda I don't mean that nobody cares about the legal framework, I mean that universities don't punish or sue their own academics for publishing something on their own accord, even if in theory they should have asked for permission first. your question seems to assume that if the university doesn't automatically waive its IP rights, then it prevents academics from publishing under an open license. This is a misinterpretation, since the institution can still allow publication on a case by case basis. – Erwan Nov 11 '19 at 14:36

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