Notable: Harvard Didn't Try To Claim Ownership Of Facebook

from the hopefully-that's-policy,-not-luck dept

With the big Facebook IPO dominating the tech news, the folks over at the Boston Globe have highlighted a point that hasn't received much, if any, attention. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook (with the vestigial "the" as a prefix) while he was a student at Harvard. Many universities these days claim ownership of any kind of company that students create while there. But, in this case, Harvard did absolutely nothing. The article contrasts that to Google (Stanford took a chunk) and Netscape (University of Illinois got into a nasty legal fight leading to a cash settlement).

A lot of this goes back to the ridiculous infatuation universities have had over the past few decades with trying to justify their failing tech transfer offices. Tons of universities set up "tech transfer" offices in the 80s (at the urging of the federal government, and driven by the disastrous Bayh-Dole Act). These universities had visions of massive profits flowing back when companies used the ideas of their brilliant researchers and commercialized them. The problem, of course, is that this is not how innovation actually works. Turning pure research into a product is not a simple process, and it doesn't happen very often. Great companies are usually driven by fulfilling consumer needs, not spotting some random bit of research. But the tech transfer offices overvalued their research, insisting that the idea was the key part, and thus they should be paid handsomely for it. For the vast majority of universities that has proven to be a huge failure. Tech transfer offices cost significant money to set up and staff, however, so universities have recognized that what was supposed to be a profit center has been a significant black hole for money. In response, there's been an increased focus on trying to claim ownership of any successful startup created by students, really as a weak attempt to justify the massive disaster of their tech transfer setup.

But Harvard -- whether it was wisely or due to ignorance -- chose not to go that path. And, as the article notes, this actually has reflected quite well on the school:
Fortunately, Harvard’s minor role in Facebook’s history has attracted a different reaction: a star-studded Hollywood blockbuster, a reinvigorated reputation as a dream school for entrepreneurial teens, and warm feelings among millionaire alumni who may become large donors. By contrast, few know that modern web browsing was born at the University of Illinois, and Netscape’s embittered founders vowed never to give another dime to their alma mater-turned-adversary.
The article covers a few other crazy cases, including one where a former student ended up in jail in a dispute with the University of South Florida. Similarly, the University of Missouri apparently tried to claim ownership of a popular iPhone app, because the student had entered it into a university business plan competition.

In an age where we see so much overclaiming and this ridiculous growth of "ownership society" where everyone tries to claim ownership over "ideas" they had little to do with, Harvard really does deserve kudos for not going down that path.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2012 @ 11:26am

    What's a "Facebook"?

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2012 @ 11:32am

    "Notable: Harvard Didn't Try To Claim Ownership Of Facebook"

    and I think it's noteworthy that I'm not claiming ownership of Techdirt. You should commend me with an entire thread dedicated just for me.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2012 @ 11:36am

    You should have mentioned that the article is locked behind a paywall so I wouldn't have wasted my time clicking that link.

     

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    •  
      icon
      PlagueSD (profile), May 17th, 2012 @ 11:44am

      Re:

      No paywall for me. Don't know what link you clicked...

       

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    •  
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      BeeAitch (profile), May 17th, 2012 @ 1:46pm

      Re:

      No paywall here. Took me straight to the Boston Globe article.

       

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    •  
      icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), May 17th, 2012 @ 3:06pm

      Re:

      The system may not be perfect, but the US has had a strong patent system for 200+ years. Given that the US has also lead the world in innovation in many forms for many years and given that the US's innovation has accelerated as IP laws got stronger, I contend that innovation.


      I didn't see any paywall. I got the full article (and I'm not a subscriber or anything)

       

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  •  
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    Dementia (profile), May 17th, 2012 @ 11:49am

    It seems a number of schools are even requiring to students to sign over rights to anything they may create as part of a class project while attending school. I, for one, would never agree to sign anything along those lines, and would probably start looking for a different school.

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Another AC, May 17th, 2012 @ 12:10pm

      Re:

      I suspect things like that are often buried on some web page that students "agree to" by virtue of enrolling at the school, which students never read or are even aware of.

       

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2012 @ 12:09pm

    is it too much of a stretch to think that in the near future all of your past schools and employers are gonna want a cut of everything you do in the future? whether you sign some bullshit waivers or not?

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2012 @ 1:19pm

      Re:

      For employers, they already do. Never sign on with a tech or entertainment company without first expunging the part of the contract that (inevitably) says anything you create in your spare time on your own infrastructure belongs to them. This includes sketches on napkins.

       

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2012 @ 12:10pm

    this might explain why...

    Harvard's library can no longer afford journal subscriptions

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2012 @ 1:22pm

      Re: this might explain why...

      Libraries, plural. They can't afford subscriptions because they have so many libraries and so many specialty fields, each with their own journals. Though it might be nice if the Harvard Business Review were going free or open source, just to prove the point.

       

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    blaktron (profile), May 17th, 2012 @ 12:25pm

    I work for a major research university, and as staff I dont even have to turn over anything I create while on the job, so I'm pretty sure we wont be trying anything like that with students... I think its less notable than you think Mike, and I think universities should get credit for that. Every private sector job I've had has wanted to own my work creations, but the public sector does not.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Adrian Lopez, May 17th, 2012 @ 1:17pm

    Exploitation

    "Many universities these days claim ownership of any kind of company that students create while there."

    Not only do they claim ownership of the companies that students create, but also of any intellectual property students create as part of their schoolwork. Considering that students are not the universities' employees, claiming such ownership is really a form of exploitation. Students become a source of free labor whose creations, inventions and discoveries benefit not the students themselves but the universities and private corporations that ultimately profit from those creations.

     

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      tqk (profile), May 17th, 2012 @ 4:21pm

      Re: Exploitation

      Considering that students are not the universities' employees, claiming such ownership is really a form of exploitation.

      Worse than that, scholarships aside, these students pay to be students.

       

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    BentFranklin (profile), May 17th, 2012 @ 1:49pm

    Wait, what? I can see employees (including professors) having to give their patents to employers, because they are being paid to do their jobs. But students are paying the schools. What possible right do the schools have to take the business of their customers?

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2012 @ 2:45pm

      Re:

      In the future, anyone who is in any way associated with anyone else has a claim over the second parties' IP and anything they create thereof.

      Can't wait until the things I buy are owned by my employer. It's back to company stores and towns soon.

       

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  •  
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    Overcast (profile), May 17th, 2012 @ 2:49pm

    But really - to sum it up as a whole....

    With some notable exceptions; such as Harvard in this instance - college is a **BAD** idea for an Entrepreneur.

    If one just looks at the facts and analyzes them anyway.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Who? Me?, May 17th, 2012 @ 5:09pm

    "Tons of universities set up "tech transfer" offices in the 80s (at the urging of the federal government, and driven by the disastrous Bayh-Dole Act). These universities had visions of massive profits flowing back when companies used the ideas of their brilliant researchers and commercialized them."

    So that's what Professor Jerry Hathaway was doing to his team of brilliant students at the elite university Pacific Tech.

    And I thought he was just being a dick.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2012 @ 1:50am

    Google vs. Facebook

    It seems to me that there's a pretty big difference between a project an undergraduate student is doing in their spare time (that has no direct relation to their coursework) and one that a paid (albeit not well) graduate student is doing as part of his dissertation research.

    On the other hand, there are some greyer areas in between, e.g. projects that began as undergraduate coursework or from an unpaid internship...

     

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    identicon
    Tech Transfer Person, May 18th, 2012 @ 6:25am

    There are too many misconceptions in this article and in the comments to address them all, but here are a few:
    - No US universities take ownership of what students come up with on their own time, independent of supported research projects.
    - Google was started by graduate students as part of their academic project, working under a professor, paid by their professor. And Stanford provided both the expertise and money for the first ranking patents (e.g., http://tinyurl.com/6uoyhgo).
    - Stanford's ownership of Page & Brin's initial invention didn't prevent Google from becoming Google. That is, the process works.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    staff, May 18th, 2012 @ 7:09am

    more dissembling

    "growth of "ownership society where everyone tries to claim ownership over "ideas" they had little to do with..."

    If they invented it they had everything to do with it. All you know about patents is you don't have any.

    Itís about property rights. They should not only be for the rich and powerful. Show me a country with weak or ineffective property rights and Iíll show you a weak economy.

    Prior to eBay v Mercexchange, small entities had a viable chance at commercializing their inventions. If the defendant was found guilty, an injunction was most always issued. Then the inventor small entity could enjoy the exclusive use of his invention in commercializing it. Unfortunately, injunctions are often no longer available to small entity inventors because of the Supreme Court decision so we have no fair chance to compete with much larger entities who are now free to use our inventions. Essentially, large infringers now have your gun and all the bullets. Worse yet, inability to commercialize means those same small entities will not be hiring new employees to roll out their products and services. And now some of those same parties who killed injunctions for small entities and thus blocked their chance at commercializing now complain that small entity inventors are not commercializing. They created the problem and now they want to blame small entities for it. What dissembling! If you donít like this state of affairs (your unemployment is running out), tell your Congress member. Then maybe we can get some sense back in the patent system with injunctions fully enforceable on all infringers by all inventors, large and small.

    Those wishing to help fight big business giveaways should contact us as below and join the fight as we are building a network of inventors and other stakeholders to lobby Congress to restore property rights for all patent owners -large and small.

    For the truth about trolls, please see http://truereform.piausa.org/default.html#pt.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Chris Noble, May 18th, 2012 @ 11:18am

    The author of this article did zero research

    There are so many errors in this article, I don't know where to start.
    1. Universities claim inventions only by their employees and only if the invention used university funds and facilities. So Zuckerberg would not have to assign his invention to Harvard under the rules of any US university.
    2. Universities don't claim ownership of spinout companies. They may (under the conditions of point 1) claim ownership of patents. I am not aware that Zuckerberg filed any patents on Facebook while he was a student at Harvard.
    3. The "failing tech transfer offices" and the "disastrous Bayh-Dole Act" are being copied all over the world by foreign universities that are trying to duplicate the cooperation that exists between US research universities and tech companies.
    The rest of the article does not refer to any factual information to support very strong opinions by someone who has amply demonstrated his profound ignorance of the topic he is writing about.

     

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      identicon
      Mississippi Slim, May 19th, 2012 @ 9:11pm

      Re: The author of this article did zero research

      (1.) What about the Taborsky/USF and iPhone App/U Missouri examples from the op-ed, Chris? Those were students working on their own time and dime.

      (2.) If Harvard could have claimed patents post-hoc (as you suggest), it must have owned the IP rights. Thus, it was Harvard's decision, not Zuckerberg's, whether to file patents.

      (3.) Most TTLOs lose money. Do you really dispute this? Here are cites for you to read, Chris: http://www.statesman.com/business/experts-state-universities-can-do-better-at-turning-2325515.html?p rintArticle=y; http://www.bu.edu/itec/files/2010/09/Abrams-Leung-and-Stevens.pdf; http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2008/09/nytimes-univers.html

       

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      identicon
      Lisa Turtle, May 31st, 2012 @ 10:21am

      Re: The author of this article did zero research

      Wrong. Here's an example from Stanford's OTL: "In the case of non-employees, all potentially patentable inventions conceived or first reduced to practice in whole or in part in the course of their participation in research projects at Stanford, or with more than incidental use of University resources, shall be disclosed on a timely basis to the University, and title shall be assigned to the University, unless a waiver has been approved."

       

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        identicon
        Lisa Turtle, May 31st, 2012 @ 10:31am

        Re: Re: The author of this article did zero research

        Another one, Chris -- this time from Harvard: "The following [patent] policy is applicable to all full- and part-time faculty, staff and employees, students, postdoctoral fellows and non-employees who use University funds, facilities or other resources, or participate in University-administered research, including visiting faculty, industrial personnel and fellows, regardless of obligations to other companies or institutions."

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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