Apple's Patent Loss To University Of Wisconsin A Reminder That Universities Are Often The Worst Patent Trolls

from the shameful-attack-on-their-educational-mission dept

You may have heard the news this week that Apple lost a patent lawsuit filed by the University of Wisconsin, and may be on the hook for up to $862.4 million in damages. This news should serve as a reminder that universities are some of the nation’s worst patent trolls, actively ignoring their own stated missions to widely spread academic research and knowledge. For example, the University of Wisconsin’s stated mission is:

The mission of the University of Wisconsin System is to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses, and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training, and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the UW System is the search for truth.

Notice how much of that is about sharing knowledge and improving the world. But, of course, when UW had a chance to say “pay me!” it didn’t skip a beat. And many universities are doing the same thing. It’s a massive problem and it’s one caused almost entirely by Congress. We’ve discussed this a few times before, but in 1980, Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which was supposed to incentivize more research at universities by allowing those universities to patent that research. The people who supported this idea were working off the myth that patents are the main way to incentivize innovation and research. This is wrong, and from this initial mistake, lots of serious problems have flowed. The Bayh-Dole Act has been a dismal failure in many, many ways, leading to a world now where many universities have resorted to patent trolling.

What really happened in the wake of the Bayh-Dole Act, was that many universities thought that they’d (1) patent all their professors’ research (2) license it and (3) profit like crazy. The reality was that they did the first part — and then many universities set up “tech transfer offices” to try to license it. And then they ran smack dab into reality, which is that most of their patents sucked and no one wanted to license them. Making matters worse, even when they had a legitimate or interesting patent, the universities massively overvalued those patents, demanding licensing fees that were ridiculous.

The end result was a near total disaster for most universities. Rather than make money, most universities lost a ton of money between all the patent filing and the expensive tech transfer offices that were supposed to be a revenue generator, but turned out to be massive losses for the vast majority of universities that set them up (there are very few exceptions). On top of that, this rush to patent and license resulted in a secondary problem: it actually decreased research and information sharing. Historically, professors would often share research with colleagues and work together on projects. But universities started pushing them not to do that as much, because of the patents. And on top of that, it became riskier to do follow on research over fears around the patents. So the entire intent of the bill backfired drastically.

As a result, many university tech transfer offices followed one of two paths to try to justify their existence: they sold off patent portfolios to patent trolls directly (Intellectual Ventures’ big initial portfolio of patents was mostly them buying junk patent portfolios from desperate universities, who needed to show some sort of return), or they started patent trolling themselves. The University of California at Berkeley became a major patent troll. As did the University of Southern California. And Carnegie Mellon. And, apparently, the University of Wisconsin as well.

This recent ruling is just the latest example of how far we’ve come and just how much damage the Bayh-Dole Act has done. It’s not only diminished university research and important information sharing, it’s now leading these universities to actively attack actual innovators and shake them down for money. If Congress really wants to fix patent trolling, it really needs to roll back the Bayh-Dole Act.

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Companies: apple, university of wisconsin

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Comments on “Apple's Patent Loss To University Of Wisconsin A Reminder That Universities Are Often The Worst Patent Trolls”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: But.. but.. innovation!

I wish more people understood this.

There are multiple aspects to innovation. Take computing applications for example. In any application there are AT LEAST 2 distinct ways to innovate.

1. Functionality/Capability. IE, how powerful of a tool it is and what can it do for the user?
2. Interface/Interactivity. IE, how easy is it for a human with no experience to use that product effectively!

No matter how great an engine is, it is worthless if that engine cannot be effectively operated.
No matter how slick an interface is, it is worthless if the engine cannot effectively perform any tasks assigned to it.

Apple for all of its corporate greed and snobbery tends to do a much better job on their interfaces compared to a lot of other tech companies. Unfortunately, you also get a lot of, our way or the highway bluster along the way.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: But.. but.. innovation!

Fair enough, but it’s important to keep in mind that not all innovation is necessarily good. Case in point: the iPhone. It’s literally designed from beginning to end to limit users’ freedom, reduce their ability to do useful things, strip them of their natural property rights in things that they legitimately purchased… and make them like it.

That’s one set of innovations the world would be much better off without.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But.. but.. innovation!

I buy lots of equipment for schools. And different devices have both good and bad qualities.
Over all Apple makes good product that had a much lower support cost while only having a slightly higher purchase cost. That is until the Chromebook came along. iPads are still are a good product that I think is better then android. I think it is only a matter of time till that changes though.

FlopHopper says:

Re: But.. but.. innovation!

Commodore, for example, over 30 years ago created technology that in several fundamental ways remains superior, in the sense of empowering the end use, to what we use today. The end user is to blame because they spend their money on what is most aggressively marketed to them, ignoring what is actually technically superior.

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The short history is that an unpatented technology was poorly implemented, motivating researchers to create a university-based agent to manage UW IP to ensure that the benefits of the research were actually transmitted to industry…

Much has changed since the 20s…

I’ll add that UW is one of the few universities that does not automatically obtain the rights to any student invention, so among peers UW/WARF are pretty good.

Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe we need to get rid of the antiquated idea that universities are these great benevolent, humanitarian institutions whose only goal is to improve society. Because at its core, a university is essentially a business, much like any other. Yet the public always seems to be shocked at the latest scandal involving the people that run these “businesses”.

Bri (profile) says:

Possibly good can come from this?

I’d like to point out the University just had 250 million in funding cut by the state, convieniently in time for a 250 million Wisconsin Bucks stadium to be funded by the state (the stadium will be privately owned though). So, while I get this is patent trolling hard, I can only hope the money actually will go to the University to try and prevent the drastic cutting back to the actual education system. Departments like mine, the astronomy department, which don’t really bring in money, are in dire straights with some faculty even looking at leaving. We don’t have enough money for all the grad students either, and have to rely on private donors to make up the budget of our department. We are certiany not the only ones.

Still, hoping the money can go towards something good does not justify patent trolling. Universities shouldn’t have to focus on making money, but the sad state of things is the government, especially in Wisconsin, is dead set on making it impossible for universities to NOT try and make money at every turn. They can’t afford to keep being a cutting edge research institution if the state claims they should only be producing people ready for the workforce and cuts money to prove a point. I was almost hoping Scott Walker would get the nomination just so he would quit as governer (but the chance that he could have won was equally terrifying).

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Possibly good can come from this?

This award (should it stand) will certainly benefit UW, as previous awards under this patent have, to the tune of 20% to the inventors, 15% to the department, with the remainder supporting WARF and its grants across the campus.

I’m pessimistic on the value of software (and most other) patents, but I’ve both disclosed projects to WARF and have had early-stage research funded to the point that it was competitive for federal grants. Among the tech transfer offices, WARF is a pretty sympathetic target. And I too was hoping to foist Walker upon anyone else..

UW Alumni says:

Talking about trolls

They are not perfect, but they are not an example of a “troll”. They are a top notch research university and over 50% of my tuition was funded by patents from extensive research that they’ve done.

They do have a mission to teach, but they cannot complete that mission without money.

They have an extensive track record of research collaboration and using the money to give back to the community.

Ed (profile) says:

So Apple was asked to license something they knew they used, and knew that other companies had paid to license. And knew that at least one other large tech company had lost a previous case for the same license and had to pay. Apple refuses to pay and uses it anyway. UW sues. And you accuse UW of being the patent troll. Could you suck Apple’s **** a little bit harder?

Anonymous Coward says:

Missing the point

What has to be remembered is that education is a business. Its product and services are information and knowledge. They are not there for the ‘greater good’. They have always been there for their own good. They sell people on the idea that a university education is vital and essential, then later tell you that you need to ‘upgrade’ because your hard earned qualifications are out of date. They are businesses and always have been. There is nothing altruistic about them. So why do they get tax breaks when other businesses get none?

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