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Rough Sailing at the Media Lab

Can it adapt to the New Economy’s love of intellectual property?

It should have been a restful few days as the faculty of MIT’s famous Media Lab arrived at the Maryland shore last July for their annual retreat. But the brainstorming and rejuvenation session-including meetings aboard a Chesapeake Bay sailing schooner-soon ran into turbulent waters. The issue: whether impending changes in the lab’s intellectual property (IP) rules could destroy the facility’s special character.

The financial realities of the new economy, it seems, are catching up with one of the world’s eminent centers of digital research. Since its 1985 formation, the Media Lab has followed an unusual model: Corporations pay for a sponsorship (current requirements involve contributing at least $200,000 annually for three years or longer) and in return get free licensing rights to any technology developed. That arrangement has succeeded brilliantly in making the lab a model of academic-industrial collaboration (more than 90 percent of its $30 million budget comes from industry). But it has also meant that lab members can find it more difficult to profit from their own innovations than some MIT colleagues.

The problem goes beyond money to the core of the lab’s educational mission and its ability to attract and retain top-flight talent. “What’s happening is that the new economy is rewriting the rules of how people decide what to do with their lives, all the way back into how they go to college or whether they are going to be a professor,” says Media Lab associate professor Ted Selker. Proactive institutions, he argues, must revisit their deals with faculty and students to match these societal changes, “because the consequences of not doing that is in fact no less than the loss of the best and the brightest people entering and staying at these institutions.”

At MIT, as at many other universities, most researchers get one-third of the licensing royalties from their inventions. Things are different at the Media Lab, though, where staff members receive two-thirds of any royalties-if a non-sponsoring company licenses the technology. The hitch is that the lab’s sponsors, among them many leading corporations, have free and open access to any lab inventions. It is this twist in IP policy that can make it difficult for lab staffers to turn a hot new technology into a royalty-earning success.

The Media Lab does have its share of startups: witness high-flying E Ink, a leader in developing electronic paper, which formed in 1997 with funding from some lab sponsors. Other Media Lab backers, though, frown on such ventures. Often, they’re not as worried about missing out on key technology as they are about losing the chance to work with the very creative people who drew them to the lab in the first place.

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.”

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