President Reif's Response to Open Letter
February 25, 2014
Dear Professor Abelson and Messrs. Matias and Zuckerman:
Thank you for your expression of concern for the Tidbit students and for the larger issues their circumstances point to.
As you know, we are coordinating with the students and their pro bono lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I agree with your view that the Tidbit subpoena highlights a larger threat to the freedom to “imagine, create and disseminate projects that expand the possibilities of technology.” For the moment, we are focused on the welfare of these students. Their lawyers have suggested that MIT make a statement, and we are working with them to define what statement will have the greatest impact on their behalf.
The experience of the Tidbit students also points to the need to provide a new kind of legal resource to serve our student innovators. As I explained in my February 15 letter to the MIT community and as Professor Abelson has noted in recent public comments, when our student inventors and entrepreneurs engage in research and experimentation that push technological and societal limits, they need legal counsel that is genuinely independent and focused on their interests alone.
I believe it is important to appreciate that, by definition, MIT’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC) cannot provide this independent legal advice. OGC provides MIT with tremendously valuable service, in an important and well-defined sphere. There are certainly times when we decide that a legal case in which MIT is not technically involved is in fact “our business.” Correctly, OGC relies on MIT’s academic leadership to make that call. We have made that judgment in this case, and we are proceeding on that basis, with enthusiastic help from OGC.
As you know, I have asked Provost Marty Schmidt, Chancellor Cindy Barnhart and General Counsel Greg Morgan to develop a proposal for the new legal resource. In preparing this proposal, they are seeking insight and suggestions from those with direct knowledge of the challenges that innovators face in the field. I know many of you are inventors and entrepreneurs, and I encourage you to share your experiences with Marty, Cindy and Greg as they design this new resource.
Going forward, I hope you will be open to working cooperatively together with me and the MIT leadership team as we try to support the Tidbit students in this immediate circumstance, work to design a lasting new resource for our innovation ecosystem and identify ways we can actively protect the freedom to innovate so essential to MIT’s mission.
In leading the MIT community, I strive to listen respectfully, collaborate openly and take decisive action. In that spirit, I look forward to working with you.
L. Rafael Reif