This month’s column is based on my remarks to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) at their annual meeting in San Francisco.
First of all, congratulations! You made TheWashington Post and they even spelled your name correctly. Unfortunately, AUTM was specifically called out in an article titled Patent Trolls Have a Surprising Ally: Universities.The name of another article appearing at the same time Patenting University Research Has Been a Dismal Failure, Enabling Patent Trolls: It’s Time to Stop while long winded speaks for itself. And two innocuous sounding reports from the Brookings Institution Building an Innovation Based Economy and University Start-Ups: Critical for Tech Transfer say that Congress should amend the Bayh-Dole Act to give the federal government control over whether you can grant exclusive licenses, that you have been unsuccessful as most technology transfer offices are not self-supporting, that your business orientation conflicts with the mission of a university and your alleged model of “licensing to the highest bidder” has failed. The New York Times accurately summarized the intended message in its headline Patenting Their Discoveries Does Not Pay Off for Most Universities.
For a profession that keeps a low profile and goes out of its way not to antagonize people, you may wonder what in the world’s going on that you are gaining such notoriety. The answer is that you are in the sights of several groups who do not wish you well. Some want to weaken the patent system for their short term benefit, some believe society would be better off if inventions were freely available without patents; some don’t think it’s moral for universities to work with industry, and others believe they should determine who reaps the rewards of innovation. While operating on diverse belief systems, they all have one thing in common: they don’t like you.
The report makes some good recommendations for increasing support for start-up formation, but implies that most university technology transfer offices (TTO’s) are not worth their cost because they are not self-supporting through patent licensing income. As Brookings acknowledges, universities spend the vast majority of their licensing revenues rewarding inventors or funding new research, not in supporting technology transfer operations. Brookings recommends that universities shift focus from patent licensing to start-up formation.
Ironically, recommendations from a preceding Brookings study would make both start- up formation and patent licensing more difficult.
Baseball is a good analogy for politics, which is why political talk shows have names like “Hard Ball.” A defining moment for any hitter is realizing that a 95 mile an hour fastball has just been deliberately thrown at your head. Pitchers throw the “beanball” is to see if a batter has the courage to play the game knowing that the risk of serious injury is literally an inch away. As former Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax said: “Pitching is the art of instilling fear.”
A similar challenge is delivered to those who get in the way of well-funded lobbyist’s campaigns. An equivalent of the beanball is the attack article in the Washington Post, the paper of record for the political class. So it should not be surprising that as soon as universities announced that they could not support the House patent reform bill in its current form that a beanball was immediately headed their way.
“The pitcher has to find out if the hitter is timid. And if the hitter is timid, he has to remind the hitter that he’s timid” said Don Drysdale, a pitcher who built a career successfully intimidating batters. In baseball and politics the message behind the pitch is the same: “Kid, are you sure you want to take me on?”
The National Institutes of Health recently made its long anticipated ruling on a petition seeking to use the “march in” provisions of the Bayh-Dole Act as a mechanism for the government to control prices on drugs derived from federally-funded research by issuing compulsory licenses.
NIH correctly ruled that such actions are not sanctioned under the law. Three succeeding NIH directors have reached the same conclusion: the march in rights provision was never intended as a price control mechanism. Hopefully, the third time is the charm.
The petition was a reiteration of one dismissed in 2004 seeking to have the government march in to control the price of Norvir, part of the AIDS “cocktail.” Norvir was invented by Abbott Laboratories with partial NIH funding, thus it falls under the Bayh-Dole Act which grants ownership of federally funded inventions to universities and industry contractors so they can be developed for public use.
Before Bayh-Dole not a single drug was commercialized when the government took patent rights away from inventing organizations. Under the law at least 153 new drugs and vaccines are now alleviating human suffering world-wide.
Recently in the news you may have read that some are questioning the success, viability and wisdom of Universities owning patents, pushing back against University patent rights in order to raise a debate over the usefulness of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. While perhaps predictable it is rather sad given the unquestionable truth that Bayh-Dole has been extraordinarily successful. The Economist wrote: “Possibly the most inspired piece of legislation to be enacted in America over the past half-century was the Bayh-Dole act of 1980… More than anything, this single policy measure helped reverse America’s precipitous slide into industrial irrelevance.” Economist Technology Quarterly, Dec. 14, 2002. Lofty praise indeed, but the facts back up the claim.
The facts are overwhelmingly on the side of those who know and understand that Bayh-Dole has been a thorough and profound success. Indeed, if you actually look at the facts no one could ever objectively question whether Bayh-Dole is succeeding or has been good. Yet, year after year supposed experts and scholars choose to ignore the objective data and question whether we should go back to the way it used to be — back when no University technology was commercialized due to the enormous red-tape involved.
This isn’t just a philosophical debate. There is a right and a wrong answer, and to think that the New England Journal of Medicine would aline themselves with the clear and objectively wrong answer would be astonishing if it weren’t so predictable. The agenda of those who despite patents and the progress of science thanks to incentivizing behavior knows no boundaries.
Of course it would be wonderful to live in a world where self-interest takes a back seat to humanitarian efforts and altruism on all occasions; where financial incentives are not required to promote the greater social good. That, however, is not the world we live in and the regimes where this economic philosophy has been tried have unanimously faltered or failed. If we want maximum good for society pursuing a path that results in maximum good ought to be the agenda, not some pollyannish pursuit of the impossible because it feels better or fits into some pre-ordained social narrative that some deem acceptable. Failure for an altruistic reason is still failure, and when we are talking about the economy, jobs and hundreds of life saving treatments and cures the right thing is to do the most good. It is truly a pity that some would choose not to maximize social good simply because it means someone else will make money in the process.
Senator Bayh (right) and staffer Joe Allen (left), circa 1980.
In its August 29, 2013 edition the New England Journal of Medicine saw fit to print two “perspective” pieces attacking the Bayh-Dole Act. The primary article is by Dr. Howard Markel entitled Patents, Profits, and the American People—The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. It repeats previously refuted charges that patenting and licensing federally funded inventions harms the public interest. To give the author due “credit”, Dr. Markel does invent some new allegations as well which simply cannot go unanswered.
The Bayh-Dole Act was passed because Congress was rightly concerned that potential benefits from billions of dollars of federally funded research were lying dormant on the shelves of government. Government funded inventions tend to be very early stage discoveries—more like ideas than products—requiring considerable private sector risk and investment to turn them into products that can be used by the public.
Under prior patent polices government agencies took such inventions away from their creators and offered them non-exclusively for development. There were no incentives for the inventors to remain engaged in product development. Not surprisingly, few such inventions were ever commercialized even though billions of dollars were being spent annually on government R&D. This failure spurred two Senators from opposing sides of the aisle, Birch Bayh of Indiana and Bob Dole of Kansas, to form a remarkable partnership seeking a remedy.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked NIH in a July 12 letter to force compulsory licensing of Myriad’s BRCA breast and ovarian cancer genetic test under the “march-in rights” provision of the Bayh-Dole Act. “Testimony presented to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made clear that many women are not able to afford the testing provided by Myriad.” Senator Leahy also charged that the Myriad test “was developed with federally-funded research.” See Leahy Urges Action.
Myriad received an exclusive license to develop the test from universities operating under Bayh-Dole Act. The law allows nonprofit institutions receiving federal R&D funds to own and license resulting inventions so they can be commercialized for use by the public.
Critics of Bayh-Dole have long sought to reinterpret its statutory standards under which the government can compel universities to issue compulsory licenses as a weapon to control prices. This was not the intent of the law.
How to Write a Patent Application is a must own for patent attorneys, patent agents and law students alike. A crucial hands-on resource that walks you through every aspect of preparing and filing a patent application, from working with an inventor to patent searches, preparing the patent application, drafting claims and more.
Without hesitation I recommend One Simple Idea and think it should be required reading for any motivated inventor. There is so much to like about the book and so much that I think author Stephen Key nails dead on accurate. The book is educational, information and inspirational. For the $14 cover price it is essential reading.
Typically blog roll links are not helpful to a website's rank. To give some additional "link love" to those we think you might be interested in reading we have moved our blog roll and links to a dedicated page. Go to IPWatchdog Blog Roll & Links.