More Trouble From Universities And Patents: Lawsuits Between Universities And Professors

from the sharing-the-knowledge-or-grabbing-for-profits dept

We recently discussed how the Bayh-Dole Act, which encouraged universities to look at patenting their research, has done more harm than good for many universities. Because of the Act, many universities set up "tech transfer offices" to try to "commercialize" the research going on at those universities. However, the majority of universities have found that the tech transfer offices have lost them money. That's because (once again) they overestimate the value of the patents themselves (and underestimate the costs of running the transfer office). Now, the Associated Press is highlighting a second problem coming out of this focus on patenting every bit of research: lawsuits with professors.

You would think that a university, whose mission is to help disseminate knowledge, would want to help share ideas. But Bayh-Dole turned many of them into idea-hoarding factories, believing (often incorrectly) that hoarding ideas would bring them profit, thus often stifling research. In the main case described in the article linked above, the University of Missouri gave up trying to commercialize a certain patent developed by a professor at the university. Even so, when the professor tried to reclaim the rights to his own research, for the sake of doing his own startup, the University tried to put in all sorts of strict rules and conditions -- well beyond what it even requires of other organizations it licenses patents to. Thus, the two sides are now engaged in a big lawsuit.

This, of course, hurts everyone. Rather than focusing so narrowly on patenting every bit of research and then trying to squeeze every penny from those patents, you would think that there are much more beneficial ways for everyone to benefit from the research. The professor could build his startup, and the more successful it is, the better it reflects on the University -- who can tout that the research initially came from the university. This, in turn, can lead to new (and bigger) grants and funding for new research, as the university's reputation is greatly enhanced. If the professor remains connected to the university in some fashion, this works out even more. And all of this can be done without patents. In fact, without having the professor license his own research, it keeps the costs down for the startup, making it easier for that startup to succeed. Plus, this would fit well with the recognized value of sharing ideas that come out of academia, rather than trying to hoard them for profit.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Tephy, Feb 9th, 2009 @ 4:53pm

    This is very upsetting.

    I am very grateful that my university leaves you with the patents and has a very efficient system of helping you start your business. The pros of this are numerous since many of the companies have gone on to be successful billion dollar companies (RIM for example) and hence they are very generous towards the university giving millions of dollars back and hiring tons of co-op students.

     

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    Paul Brinker, Feb 9th, 2009 @ 5:29pm

    Dident we learn this from WW2?

    The end of WW2 we basicly sent our entire GI core to school, From this we made more tax money then we paid into the system. If we pattented everything discovered while the GI core was in school, then licenced it to them, how many would have started small bussnesses? paid back into the system? said fuck this paperwork bullshit?

    The point of this is, we go to school to learn, not learn what we cant use because it costs to much.

     

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  3.  
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    Jesse, Feb 9th, 2009 @ 5:30pm

    Universities argue that if a researcher invents something on its property with its equipment, then the invention (patent) belongs to the university because they provided the tools used in its invention. But then doesn't it also stand to reason that if the public gives money to the university, then its inventions should be returned to the public domain?

    Are universities places of learning or money grabbing corporations? Do universities count as non-profit organizations?

     

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  4.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Feb 9th, 2009 @ 5:59pm

    Not quite

    "This, of course, hurts everyone."

    Excepting, as always, the lawyers.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 9th, 2009 @ 6:13pm

    University priorities are greatly confused

    Higher learning or higher earning ?

     

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  6.  
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    Joshua (profile), Feb 9th, 2009 @ 6:30pm

    get the facts staright

    I'm all for reforming IP law and can see how big patent holders (in this case a University) often don't take the financial risks to develop a technology commercially and only take interest when someone else does and succeeds. But in this case, University of Missouri is not playing the role of a patent troll.

    The University is accusing the professor of falsifying required papers to mislead the university about the progress on the research. The University is also claiming that the professor filed for patents without the knowledge of the university even after signing standard agreements that any IP developed would be the property of the University.

    He also claims that the suit is part of a conspiracy to prevent a grievance he filed against the university being heard by the faculty committee. I know first hand that the faculty committee is very protective of their professors and I can imagine a lawsuit filed by the legal department against a professor would only encourage the committee to hear the grievance more.

    Furthermore, its not as simple to say: its a public university therefore all research needs to be in the public domain. Different projects are funded by grants from private industry or foundations. One dealing with anti-freeze might be funded by a car company (as was with earlier research at University of Missouri on catalytic converters. If a car company helped the research, then shouldn't they be able to work out some sort of preferential licensing agreement with University.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 9th, 2009 @ 6:40pm

    Re: get the facts staright

    Joshua,
    I find it interesting that you consider the University to be a troll, because the only place I found that word was in your post.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 9th, 2009 @ 8:43pm

    The truth is the current trends in copyright, IP law, and patents have little to do with money and more to do with control. Just as the creation of an artisan class to please the large landholders who controlled all the wealth led to an eventually shift from fuedalism to capitalism, a slow shift is occurring that is slowly transforming capitalism back into a form of feudalism. Except instead of being beholden to ultra wealthy landholders, we're slowly becoming beholden to ultra wealthy corporations/organizations.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 9th, 2009 @ 8:51pm

    Re: little to do with money

    Really ? - I dont think so.
    If money had little to do with it, they wouldn't seek such large damages. And the shift to which you refer is commonly known as class warfare.

     

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  10.  
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    Bunny, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 1:44am

    Hard to believe

    The key to scientific progress from the beginning has been the sharing of experimental results to all other scientists (to maximize collaboration) and of being free to build on previous work using the same methods or modified ones to repeat the results or produce an ever more useful set of theories and technologies. Universities are supposedly at the vanguard of scientific progress, but for how much longer with self-inflicted policies like this?

    I don't think the greedy folk who thought this up know what a big wrench this is going to throw into the works. Progress will grind to a halt if part of being a researcher must include obfuscating results so as to leave greedy prospective information owners with as little leverage as possible over the future developments of that researcher. Eventually, no one will understand the science or be able to nail down what it is that is being researched. Contrary to scientific tradition, collaboration will thus be minimized (and this is without counting the probable counter-reaction of exploratory lawsuits in order to try to contest patent ownership... and the counter reactions to that...)

    Ugh. It looks like we're going back to the Dark Ages.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 5:08am

    "don't think the greedy folk who thought this up know what a big wrench this is going to throw into the works."

    already has

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 2:19pm

    I thought you weren't linking AP stories anymore.

     

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  13.  
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    moelarry, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 6:39am

    free lunch

    sure universities want to share their discoveries with teh world, but they also want to be compensated for their work and expense. researchers and labs dobnt come cheap and certainly not free.

    when you go to a cafeteria and fill up do you pay at the register or skip out without paying? no such thing as a free lunch. dont want to pay? dont eat!

     

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