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Maximizing nanotechnology patent benefits

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 in the U.S. gives patent rights for federally-funded research done in universities to the universities themselves, in effect. Many people regard this strategy as a succcess, and many countries around the world are copying it. But is this the best way to handle this publicly-funded intellectual property? After over 25 years of running this experiment, it’s time to take a look at the results.

Stimulating the comment above is the news from Harvard that about 50 of their nanotech patents are being licensed to one company, Nano-Terra. As reported by the Harvard Crimson newspaper:

The licensing agreement holds throughout the life of the patents and gives Nano-Terra the exclusive right to develop the technologies for use in military products, environmental testing products, and industrial products, among others…

Harvard will receive royalties from those products developed from the licensed technologies, and the University will also receive an ownership stake in Nano-Terra.

The assumptions here are that (1) companies need exclusive rights in order to commercialize a technology, and that (2) the public will benefit from the products themselves and (3) the public will also benefit indirectly from the use Harvard makes of the money the school obtains from the company involved. Numbers (2) and (3) seem correct to me, but it is not clear that (1) is always the case. Some technologies might do more good if licensed broadly, or even (gasp) not patented at all. Also, many are beginning to ask, is the pursuit of commercial gain distracting our university personnel from their primary role as educators? It’s time — past time — to ask these questions.

Bayh-Dole may be the right tradeoff, or it might not. We need a national conversation on this. Thomas Kalil of UC Berkeley has useful things to say on this complex issue. —Christine

2 Responses to “Maximizing nanotechnology patent benefits”

  1. Lex Spoon Says:

    My knee-jerk reaction is that publicly funded research should not be patentable. Universities are supposed to gather knowledge for all of us, aren’t they? And public science funds are supposed to promote science, aren’t they, as opposed to a university’s business interests?

    I have not thought about the issue carefully, but I would prefer to see federally funded research not being allowed to be patentable at all.

  2. Phillip Huggan Says:

    The USA wouldn’t want to make any policy change that lowers overall R+D funding (debt interest and demographics will soon be facilitating this). If gross fortunes are being made here the easiest way to rebalance things is to have the federally funded patents offer business warrants to Uncle Sam if a certain profit threshold is reached. Then comes the messy tasks of whether to allow the company to buy out the goverment’s share, and the necessity of being ready to sue a previous client.
    Any solution that lowers federal government spending must at least replace it with other sources. Public R+D annually returns more than the 6-9% it costs to service as public debt. There is just an annoyingly long delay to recoup investment while a product’s lifecycle occurs.

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