How Patents Have Harmed University Research

from the a-travesty dept

When we talk about all the harm patents do, some people respond that even if the market can make up for cover the research costs for commercial products, without patents, basic research would never happen. Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, there's increasing evidence that patents are harming basic research as well. The main arena for basic research has long been universities. Yet, back in 1980, what was supposed to be a "minor tweak" to the patent system, the Bayh-Dole Act, allowed universities to start patenting their research. And, patent it they did. However, as the NY Times notes, rather than foster new research and innovation, this resulted in much less collaboration, much greater secrecy and much higher costs to innovation.

As the article notes, the problem was in making the same mistake that many patent system supporters make, assuming that the invention stage is the most important part of innovation -- when it is not. Invention is just one part of the innovation process. Locking up the invention stage makes every other part of the process of innovation much more expensive, thereby limiting innovation -- and in fact, that's exactly what the Bayh-Dole Act has done:
Part of the problem has been a lingering misunderstanding about where the value lies in innovation. Patenting a new basic science technique, or platform technology, puts it out of the reach of graduate students who might have made tremendous progress using it.

Similarly, exclusive licensing of a discovery to a single company thwarts that innovation’s use in any number of other fields. R. Stanley Williams, a nanotechnologist from Hewlett-Packard, testified to Congress in 2002 that much of the academic research to which H.P. has had difficulty gaining access could be licensed to several companies without eroding its intellectual property value.
As for whether or not it's actually increased the amount of basic research, a study we wrote about earlier this year found that it had actually decreased basic research at universities. And, the story gets even worse, because it's not even as if this ability to patent university research has resulted in huge monetary windfalls for universities either. While some had hoped to hit the jackpot with patents, they failed to recognize just how costly it is to maintain patents and run a technology transfer office. A recent study found that the majority of tech transfer offices had lost money for their universities.

About the only good news in the article is the fact that the steady stream of studies and complaints from within academia about this impact is gradually waking up some to how big a problem the Bayh-Dole Act was in stifling research and innovation in the US. Unfortunately, just getting basic patent reform moving is difficult enough. And since the pharma industry likes Bayh-Dole (since it allows them to sweep in and get all the value from discoveries made at universities -- see The $800 Million Pill to learn about how pharma and biotech companies have abused the system for years), you can bet that they'll put up a huge fight to repeal this incredibly harmful bit of legislation.

Filed Under: bayh-dole, innovation, patents, universities


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  1. identicon
    Ben J., 11 Sep 2008 @ 1:30pm

    another explanation

    As a current grad student with years of industry experience who has had many experiences with patents impeding my own research, I've always been interested in how this mess got started in the first place. This mostly comes from hearsay working with older researchers, but here's the story I've heard:

    Since the late 70s the federal government agencies have gradually changed the criteria for awarding research grants so that now nearly all research is being done by academic institutions. Back in the glory days of Silicon Valley, the private semiconductor companies could afford massive R&D efforts because the overhead was funded by the federal government with the understanding that the results would be shared. Most of the money came from defense spending and pseudo defense spending, like from NASA and the DOE, and at the time it was assumed that federally funded research was not patentable (since BD didn't exist yet).

    When money got tight in the 70s, for-profit government research contracts were all but discontinued, as they were seen as pork barrel fluff. Research was consolidated to academia because this was the only environment in which professional researchers could work without having to constantly worry about the financial side of things. BD and similar changes in patent law at the time were supposed to be a way to fund this new research sector. Unfortunately it's had some serious unintended consequences.

    Has anybody done serious research into exactly how we ended up with the current patent mess? It'd probably help to debunk a lot of the claims from these sociopathic IP lawyers. This is a total straw man, but a lot of the posts here seem to be of the opinion that the current patent fiasco is the result of a vast conspiracy from the corporate world. A more plausible idea is that it's an accident in economic policy aggravated by the amoral legal profession. I think presenting the case against patents this way would be a good counterpoint to the propaganda that IP laws are somehow a moral obligation.

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