The Latest Front in the Patent Wars: Attacking Innovation in Universities

Kristian Stout —  1 September 2016

It’s not quite so simple to spur innovation. Just ask the EU as it resorts to levying punitive retroactive taxes on productive American companies in order to ostensibly level the playing field (among other things) for struggling European startups. Thus it’s truly confusing when groups go on a wholesale offensive against patent rights — one of the cornerstones of American law that has contributed a great deal toward our unparalleled success as an innovative economy.

Take EFF, for instance. The advocacy organization has recently been peddling sample state legislation it calls the “Reclaim Invention Act,” which it claims is targeted at reining in so-called “patent trolls.” Leaving aside potential ulterior motives (like making it impossible to get software patents at all), I am left wondering what EFF actually hopes to achieve.

“Troll” is a scary sounding word, but what exactly is wrapped up in EFF’s definition? According to EFF’s proposed legislation, a “patent assertion entity” (the polite term for “patent troll”) is any entity that primarily derives its income through the licensing of patents – as opposed to actually producing the invention for public consumption. But this is just wrong. As Zorina Khan has noted, the basic premise upon which patent law was constructed in the U.S. was never predicated upon whether an invention would actually be produced:

The primary concern was access to the new information, and the ability of other inventors to benefit from the discovery either through licensing, inventing around the idea, or at expiration of the patent grant. The emphasis was certainly not on the production of goods; in fact, anyone who had previously commercialized an invention lost the right of exclusion vested in patents. The decision about how or whether the patent should be exploited remained completely within the discretion of the patentee, in the same way that the owner of physical property is allowed to determine its use or nonuse.

Patents are property. As with other forms of property, patent holders are free to transfer them to whomever they wish, and are free to license them as they see fit. The mere act of exercising property rights simply cannot be the basis for punitive treatment by the state. And, like it or not, licensing inventions or selling the property rights to an invention is very often how inventors are compensated for their work. Whether one likes the Patent Act in particular or not is irrelevant; as long as we have patents, these are fundamental economic and legal facts.

Further, the view implicit in EFF’s legislative proposal completely ignores the fact that the people or companies that may excel at inventing things (the province of scientists, for example) may not be so skilled at commercializing things (the province of entrepreneurs). Moreover, inventions can be enormously expensive to commercialize. In such cases, it could very well be the most economically efficient result to allow some third party with the requisite expertise or the means to build it, to purchase and manage the rights to the patent, and to allow them to arrange for production of the invention through licensing agreements. Intermediaries are nothing new in society, and, despite popular epithets about “middlemen,” they actually provide a necessary function with respect to mobilizing capital and enabling production.

Granted, some companies will exhibit actual “troll” behavior, but the question is not whether some actors are bad, but whether the whole system overall optimizes innovation and otherwise contributes to greater social welfare. Licensing patents in itself is a benign practice, so long as the companies that manage the patents are not abusive. And, of course, among the entities that engage in patent licensing, one would assume that universities would be the most unobjectionable of all parties.

Thus, it’s extremely disappointing that EFF would choose to single out universities as aiders and abettors of “trolls” — and in so doing recommend punitive treatment. And what EFF recommends is shockingly draconian. It doesn’t suggest that there should be heightened review in IPR proceedings, or that there should be fee shifting or other case-by-case sanctions doled out for unwise partnership decisions. No, according to the model legislation, universities would be outright cut off from government financial aid or other state funding, and any technology transfers would be void, unless they:

determine whether a patent is the most effective way to bring a new invention to a broad user base before filing for a patent that covers that invention[;] … prioritize technology transfer that develops its inventions and scales their potential user base[;] … endeavor to nurture startups that will create new jobs, products, and services[;] … endeavor to assign and license patents only to entities that require such licenses for active commercialization efforts or further research and development[;] … foster agreements and relationships that include the sharing of know-how and practical experience to maximize the value of the assignment or license of the corresponding patents; and … prioritize the public interest in all patent transactions.

Never mind the fact that recent cases like Alice Corp., Octane Fitness, and Highmark — as well as the new inter partes review process — seem to be putting effective downward pressure on frivolous suits (as well as, potentially, non-frivolous suits, for that matter); apparently EFF thinks that putting the screws to universities is what’s needed to finally overcome the (disputed) problems of excessive patent litigation.

Perhaps reflecting that even EFF itself knows that its model legislation is more of a publicity stunt than a serious proposal, most of what it recommends is either so ill-defined as to be useless (e.g., “prioritize public interest in all patent transactions?” What does that even mean?) or is completely mixed up.

For instance, the entire point of a university technology transfer office is that educational institutions and university researchers are not themselves in a position to adequately commercialize inventions. Questions of how large a user base a given invention can reach, or how best to scale products, grow markets, or create jobs are best left to entrepreneurs and business people. The very reason a technology transfer office would license or sell its patents to a third party is to discover these efficiencies.

And if a university engages in a transfer that, upon closer scrutiny, runs afoul of this rather fuzzy bit of legislation, any such transfers will be deemed void. Which means that universities will either have to expend enormous resources to find willing partners, or will spend millions on lawsuits and contract restitution damages. Enacting these feel-good  mandates into state law is at best useless, and most likely a tool for crusading plaintiff’s attorneys to use to harass universities.

Universities: Don’t you dare commercialize that invention!

As I noted above, it’s really surprising that groups like EFF are going after universities, as their educational mission and general devotion to improving social welfare should make them the darlings of social justice crusaders. However, as public institutions with budgets and tax statuses dependent on political will, universities are both unable to route around organizational challenges (like losing student aid or preferred tax status) and are probably unwilling to engage in wholesale PR defensive warfare for fear of offending a necessary political constituency. Thus, universities are very juicy targets — particularly when they engage in “dirty” commercial activities of any sort, no matter how attenuated.

And lest you think that universities wouldn’t actually be harassed (other than in the abstract by the likes of EFF) over patents, it turns out that it’s happening even now, even without EFF’s proposed law.

For the last five years Princeton University has been locked in a lawsuit with some residents of Princeton, New Jersey who have embarked upon a transparently self-interested play to divert university funds to their own pockets. Their weapon of choice? A challenge to Princeton’s tax-exempt status based on the fact that the school licenses and sells its patented inventions.

The plaintiffs’ core argument in Fields v. Princeton is that the University should be  a taxpaying entity because it occasionally generates patent licensing revenues from a small fraction of the research that its faculty conducts in University buildings.

The Princeton case is problematic for a variety of reasons, one of which deserves special attention because it runs squarely up against a laudable federal law that is intended to promote research, development, and patent commercialization.

In the early 1980s Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which made it possible for universities to retain ownership over discoveries made in campus labs. The aim of the law was to encourage essential basic research that had historically been underdeveloped. Previously, the rights to any such federally-funded discoveries automatically became the property of the federal government, which, not surprisingly, put a damper on universities’ incentives to innovate.

When universities collaborate with industry — a major aim of Bayh-Dole — innovation is encouraged, breakthroughs occur, and society as a whole is better off. About a quarter of the top drugs approved since 1981 came from university research, as did many life-changing products we now take for granted, like Google, web browsers, email, cochlear implants and major components of cell phones. Since the passage of the Act, a boom in commercialized patents has yielded billions of dollars of economic activity.

Under the Act innovators are also rewarded: Qualifying institutions like Princeton are required to share royalties with the researchers who make these crucial discoveries. The University has no choice in the matter; to refuse to share the revenues would constitute a violation of the terms of federal research funding. But the Fields suit ignores this reality an,d in much the same way as EFF’s proposed legislation, will force a stark choice upon Princeton University: engage with industry, increase social utility and face lawsuits, or keep your head down and your inventions to yourself.

A Hobson’s Choice

Thus, things like the Fields suit and EFF’s proposed legislation are worse than costly distractions for universities; they are major disincentives to the commercialization of university inventions. This may not be the intended consequence of these actions, but it is an entirely predictable one.

Faced with legislation that punishes them for being insufficiently entrepreneurial and suits that attack them for bothering to commercialize at all, universities will have to make a hobson’s choice: commercialize the small fraction of research that might yield licensing revenues and potentially face massive legal liability, or simply decide to forego commercialization (and much basic research) altogether.

The risk here, obviously, is that research institutions will choose the latter in order to guard against the significant organizational costs that could result from a change in their tax status or a thicket of lawsuits that emerge from voided technology transfers (let alone the risk of losing student aid money).

But this is not what we want as a society. We want the optimal level of invention, innovation, and commercialization. What anti-patent extremists and short-sighted state governments may obtain for us instead, however, is a status quo much like Europe where the legal and regulatory systems perpetually keep innovation on a low simmer.

Kristian Stout

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Kristian Stout is the Associate Director for Innovation Policy at the International Center for Law and Economics (ICLE). As a technology professional and entrepreneur for over ten years, Kristian’s scholarship is influenced by a practical understanding of the challenges facing innovators in the modern economy. Kristian has previously been a lecturer in the computer science department of Rutgers University, is frequently invited to speak on law and technology topics, and has been published in law journals and legal treatises. Kristian is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is a partner at A&S Technologies, a software services firm, and sits on the board of CodedByKids, a nonprofit organization that provides STEM education to underprivileged children.