Legal Risks to Creative Innovation and Research at College: NJ Drops Its Investigation of MIT Students | MIT Center for Civic Media

Legal Risks to Creative Innovation and Research at College: NJ Drops Its Investigation of MIT Students

Eighteen months after winning a hackathon innovation prize for a clever idea of a new online content business model, the MIT undergraduates who created Tidbit are finally free from the legal nightmare attracted by their proof of concept. Earlier this week, the New Jersey Attorney General dropped their investigation of the students, ending a case that hung over these students for a third of their undergraduate education. I'm incredbily relieved for the Tidbit undergrads, though I'm disappointed and upset that they had to face this legal challenge for so long.

In this post, I want to share what we're doing to figure out how to prevent similar problems in the future, or at least to better support other innovative student projects with legal problems. For more about the Tidbit case, you can read Jeremy Rubin's post, an update by the EFF, and a blog post by Ethan Zuckerman. I strongly suggest you read them.

In January 2014, when Ethan, Hal Abelson, and I learned that MIT was unable to offer legal support to the Tidbit students for conflict of interest reasons, we joined together with over 800 faculty, researchers, and students across MIT to ask president Reif to find some other way to intervene. President Reif acted swiftly, offering his support of the students and writing to the New Jersey Attorney General. Many in the MIT community also came together to file a letter with the the brief submitted to the court by the EFF, who had taken up the students case. It's hard to know exactly what effect our letters of support had, but the judge did acknowledge our arguments in a November opinion.

Freedom to Innovate 
I learned of the Tidbit undergraduates' situation around the same time that MIT was holding community hearings about what had happened to Aaron Swartz, a researcher, entrepreneur, and activist who had faced a federal prosecution for downloading academic articles in bulk from MIT's network. For several months, I'd been meeting regularly with other gradstudents to work out what MIT's response could be. One of the most common concerns related to cases where MIT students had faced legal challenges for groundbreaking or creative work: an MIT student arrested by homeland security for wearing e-textiles who eventually dropped out; MIT researchers who found security flaws in public transportation systems; and a gradstudent whose research helped hobbyists extend the capabilities of their gaming hardware.

These are just the public cases. During my four years at MIT, I've heard of many students and faculty here and elsewhere, whose academic work or learning experiences have been threatened by cease and desists, or who avoid interesting ideas out of legal concerns. I've watched fellow students face tough decisions when lawyers pounced on years of creative research-- including one student's master's thesis. I myself abandoned an early MIT project analysing news content after receiving a challenge that thankfully didn't escalate like Swartz's case. In one MIT class on computational linguistics, we had a lecture about exciting new research directions that we should under no account try, lest we be sued for patent infringement. Nor is this problem limited to MIT. The Association for Computing Machinery, one of the premier venues for computer science research, is so worried about this problem that they (in principle) refuse to publish completely-ethical research that risks running foul of Terms of Service violations, even when that research is in the public interest.

For our group, the most surprising discovery was that MIT just isn't set up to defend its students or faculty who face similar challenges, nor is there a single point of contact for community members who face a legal challenge. Led by the Media Lab's legal research specialist Kate Darling in collaboration with Harvard's Cyberlaw Clinic, a group of us held a "Coders, Know Your Rights" seminar to help students understand the situation. We also submitted a proposal to MIT administration to create a single point of service for students facing legal challenges to their innovation, research, and DIY creativity, something that would ensure that they could get pro bono legal help.

Legal Resources for Student Innovation 
The experience of the Tidbit undergraduates made it even clearer to us that MIT needed a better way to support students with legal challenges. The administration agreed. President Reif's public statement of support for the students called for "a resource for independent legal advice, singularly devoted to their interests and rights." Since then, we've been working with the administration to define what that should be. Although details aren't yet announced, we've been working with MIT administration on a plan that will protect a wide range of student innovation, including entrepreneurship, research, activist tech, and other forms of category-defying noncommercial creative hacking and exploration that MIT students love to do.

Extending the Freedom to Innovate at Universities 
MIT isn't alone in this. Students and colleagues in computer science, biotech, communications, and business schools have all shared stories of similar problems. We need to stop scuttling our projects and work together to protect our students and our fields from these risks. October 10th and 11th, the MIT Center for Civic Media and Electronic Frontier Foundation are hosting a conference on the Freedom to Innovate, with support from the Ford Foundation. We're still trying to understand the wider risks and what we can do, and we need your help:

  • What legal challenges have you (or your students) faced?
  • What projects have you abandoned out of legal concerns?
  • How does your university protect innovative students who face legal challenges? Does it?
  • What kinds of critically-important research is being held back by legal risks?

This conversation is not just for faculty or policymakers, and it concerns students and researchers at community colleges, state schools, and liberal arts colleges. We very much need student voices to shape this conversation.

To register for the conference, visit or join the conversation by emailing or