It looks as though a movement is afoot to unsnarl this tangle. In January, lab director Nicholas Negroponte discussed the matter with MIT provost Robert Brown and dean of engineering Thomas Magnanti. While Negroponte declines to share the details of what he calls “a very constructive solution” that is in the works, he notes that the proposed changes “alter some of the basic tenets of MIT.”
According to inside accounts, the various solutions under consideration have caused heated arguments-and hold the potential to polarize the facility. “Certainly, there are some people who have more of an inclination towards entrepreneurship outside of the lab, and others who are putting their entrepreneurial effort into the laboratory,” says Walter Bender, who heads the News of the Future group. “I think that’s a problem for all universities today.”
Some fear that in their efforts to keep the best and brightest, the Media Lab could go too far to accommodate those with a more business-oriented bent, destroying its climate of intellectual openness. Notes one professor who requested anonymity: “There’s concern that the changes in the outside world, the fact that there’s potential for people to make such huge sums of money, might lead to more incentive for people to hide their ideas while they’re here. I think that would be really harmful.”
Negroponte seems intent on staking out a middle ground that allows greater IP protection while maintaining the lab’s basic funding model and openness. Exactly what form that will take-and how fast change will come-remains to be seen. But the aim is to have everything set by the time the lab expands into a second building in 2003. Meanwhile, one place almost certain to reflect a different approach to intellectual property is the MediaLabEurope, an independent offshoot set to begin operations in Dublin this spring.
“Nicholas [Negroponte] said this really nicely,” notes Bender. “One of the biggest problems that face universities today is that 20 years ago the entire effort of a university would be focused on things like starting Media Labs-while today it’s focused on starting my.coms. And so the universities are suffering from that.”
Bender adds, “We want to come up with structures that foster some kind of balance-and we’re working toward that.”