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
    Robert B, 15 Sep 2008 @ 11:43pm

    When patents are used to suppress beneficial technologies

    The worst effect of the patent system is where competing companies can buy up the patents in alternative solutions. Most significantly the energy sector, where companies can suppress energy and battery alternatives, by buying the ownership of those patents to stop them being released to maintain their immense profits and consequently stopping humanity benefiting from free energy. There should laws introduced to stop this from happening, especially now. Many know the story of the electric cars being destroyed cause their batteries infringed on patents owned by big oil.

    Something needs to be done... unless you want the Russians, who control the oil to cut your power off any time they want.

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