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