Who Owns Patents?

from the interesting-questions dept

A court ruling in Japan today certainly brings out a lot of questions about patent ownership for debate. The Tokyo District Court today said that Nichia Corp. owns the rights to a patent on blue LEDs that were invented by Shuji Nakamura, who no longer works at the company. Nakamura is upset that Nichia is making a ton of money off of the patent while he basically got nothing. Even more to the point, Nichia told Nakamura to stop working on blue LED technology because they didn’t believe it would lead anywhere, but Nakamura continued the research on his own. It certainly is a pretty standard agreement for most researchers that if they develop something while employed by a company, that patent belongs to the company. It’s just part of the way things work these days when the corporate research department has trampled on the individual genius inventor system from the first half of the twentieth century. However, it does make you wonder if such deals act as disincentive for inventors to create new technologies – knowing that their companies (instead of they, themselves) will be the ones to profit.

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Comments on “Who Owns Patents?”

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GKORT says:

Tired Issue

When a researcher or inventor goes to work for a company he is provided an environment inwhich to apply his expertise. Company needs a solution to solve a problem or gain share in a market, and inventor comes up with a solution. In return, company provides inventor with salary, health benefits, stock options, etc. If Mr. Nakamura truly believed in the future of blue LEDs, he should have left the comfort of the corporate womb and become a self-financed entrepreneur. He’d be laughing all the way to the bank right now, instead of contesting the right to a technology that was developed with his employer’s dollars.

Steve Snyder says:

Re: Tired Issue

Kinda–in most cases it’s usually pretty clear cut–the company is paying your salary and for the resources you need to develop something. But it becomes much cloudier when some one who does work on his own–away from the office and with his own resources. What then? In many cases the company owns everything you do no matter what, and I have a probelm with that. This case makes for pretty good example in that the guy (apparently) was cut off by the company from researching the area and continued on it on his own. Your employer should not be able to own everything you do away from work. And it gets even uglier when you start thinking about cross-discipline work or things you do as a hobby. For example an hardware chip engineer for say Intel who likes to spend his free time at home working on GNU software. Technically this is impossible because his contract with Intel likely says that while he works for them, all of his IP belongs to Intel–but GNU code by definition can’t be owned by a company. To take it even a step further (albeit perhaps a little silly) say this hardware engineer likes to draw pictures. What if people think he’s really good and want to pay lots of money for his art? He can’t sell it because his contract says anything he creates belongs to Intel. I’m just trying to say that while the issue may seem tired, it’s still an important issue that hasn’t been resolved.

I have to agree that at least to some extent, when the company owns everything you do, there is definitely less incentive to invent. As far as that goes, one would think it would just make sense that company would reward people for brilliant ideas that make the company millions, and even make that part of your work contract or performance plan, but the fact is there is no reason for the company to do such a thing – so they won’t spend money they don’t have to. A major reason why small startups are where a large chunk of the innovation comes from.

steve snyder

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