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.

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Companies: facebook, google, netscape

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Comments on “Notable: Harvard Didn't Try To Claim Ownership Of Facebook”

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Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: 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)

blaktron (profile) says:

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.

Adrian Lopez says:


“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.

Who? Me? says:

“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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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…

Tech Transfer Person says:

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.,
– Stanford’s ownership of Page & Brin’s initial invention didn’t prevent Google from becoming Google. That is, the process works.

staff says:

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.

It?s about property rights. They should not only be for the rich and powerful. Show me a country with weak or ineffective property rights and I?ll 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 don?t 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

Chris Noble (user link) says:

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.

Mississippi Slim says:

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:;;

Lisa Turtle says:

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.”

Lisa Turtle says:

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.”

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