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A Nicer Way to Patent

7 March 2007 (All day)
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Universities have plumbed a rich source of cash in recent years by aggressively patenting and licensing faculty inventions, but some schools now want to set limits on the practice. An elite group--11 top research institutions and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)--have signed a pledge to take a kinder, gentler approach to licensing intellectual property. Yesterday, they released principles on the sharing of patented discoveries, urging other universities to follow their lead.

The manifesto, drafted at a meeting last year at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, makes nine key points. First on the list is that universities should not agree to deals that would curtail access to new technology by researchers at nonprofit institutions. In the past, for example, biologists complained that Harvard University granted a company too much control over its patented "oncomouse," an animal designed to be cancer-prone (Science, 17 May 2002, p. 1212). This impeded its use in research, some claimed. In other points, the guidelines say that universities should steer clear of deals that give one licensee highly exclusive control of a discovery; that they should avoid making claims on "future improvements" of a discovery; and that they should take into consideration the special needs of "neglected patient populations or geographic areas."

The specific issue that led to the drafting of these principles, according to physicist Arthur Bienenstock, former dean of research at Stanford and an organizer of the Palo Alto meeting, was a flurry of concerns about license restrictions on the use of human embryonic stem cells from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The university's technology manger, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) initially required some university-based researchers to take out a restrictive commercial license. After many objected, WARF dropped the policy (Science, 26 January 2007, p. 449).

WARF's director, Carl Gulbrandsen, acknowledges that the stem cell licensing requirements caused a backlash. But he says Wisconsin has never sued a university or a researcher over a patent license disagreement. And he praises the new Palo Alto licensing guidelines--which WARF itself has endorsed--although he notes they are "very broad" and nonbinding. Gulbrandsen adds: "We have been following most if not all of these policies" for many years.

What impact will the new document have? AAMC Senior Vice President David Korn, who helped draft it, concedes that the guidelines are "a bit arcane" but hopes they create "a buzz" among university patent officers at their annual meeting in San Francisco this week. Korn says the position statement will remind everyone that university licensing deals should "always be guided by the public interest."

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