Professors and President Chopp Hold Intellectual Property Forum

A panel of professors and President Rebecca Chopp intrepidly tackled the question “Who Owns an Idea?” this past Tuesday as part of a round table discussion hosted by the Writing Associates Program.  Intellectual property remains one of the most frequently debated and seemingly unanswerable issues among academics.

The panel featured professors from a variety of disciplines and in addition to President Chopp, included education professor Diane Anderson, astronomy professor Eric Jensen, anthropology professor Maya Nadkarni, and computer science professor Ammet Soni. When asked about how she managed to bring together such an interdisciplinary group, Rachel Crane ’13, the outreach coordinator for the WA Program, said, “Professors were really enthusiastic. I think it’s a testament to the greatness of a small, liberal arts college.”

Each panelist spoke for five minutes, followed by a discussion moderated by Crane that included input from the audience. Chopp was the first panelist to speak, looking at idea ownership from the perspective of the college’s Quaker founders and examining where intellectual transgressions such as plagiarism fit into their beliefs.

“The community can only know the way forward by hearing each and every voice,” said Chopp, echoing the Quaker emphasis on consensus. She added that any act of plagiarism thus constituted “a betrayal of the trust of the community.”

Jensen, the second panelist to speak, brought a relatively different perspective as a physical scientist. He considered scientists’ dealings with facts and falsifiable claims and how those affected academic thought in different scientific fields.

“Who owns the idea that Earth goes around the sun?” he asked, “We all own it in a sense.”  Jensen continued to discuss the issue of scientists’ desire for credit for their work, and mentioned the enigma of classified scientific information such as certain physical properties of uranium and plutonium. “It’s weird to think about a constant of nature being classified,” he said.

Nadkarni offered the anthropologist’s perspective to idea ownership, discussing how it affects academics in her field and how it affects the subjects anthropologists study.

“What qualifies as an idea? What defines ownership? What value is given to innovation and creation over tradition?” she asked. Her discussion mentioned how anthropologists fight for freer access to journal articles and the use of Western intellectual property ideas for cultural protection by some indigenous groups. She also talked about the role of an interpretative field such as anthropology in analyzing ideas of their subjects.

Soni approached the question from a legal angle with an analysis of the state of patent law in the U.S.

“You cannot patent an algorithm,” he said, while proceeding to reference the legal loopholes that many devious companies take advantage of to make money off of patent lawsuits.

Anderson was the last to speak.

“I became interested in who owns an idea when I was kid,” she said, continuing to tell a story about an intellectual property lawsuit her grandfather’s cinderblock company was embroiled in. She also talked about how she helps her students avoid plagiarism.

“I explicitly ask students to write down the brilliant ideas of one another,” she said. “This puts a face on who owns and honors the contributions of emerging scholars.”

Razi Shaban ’16 said he attended the talk because he was intrigued by the interdisciplinary list of people speaking, and that “the idea of it was really interesting.”

“I was surprised they didn’t have a philosopher,” said Andrés Cordero ’16, who also attended, although he noted that Chopp’s analysis of Quaker principles adequately represented the humanities.

The idea of a round table discussion began last year amid discussion between Crane and other WA Program leaders. Planning for this event did not begin in earnest until this past semester. The idea for the talk began with an interest in “having faculty explore their writing process,” said Crane. The primary topic soon morphed into one that is at the center of many academic and legal debates: Who Owns an Idea?

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