Are Universities Over-Eager Patent-seekers?

Interesting piece in the current Economist about universities’ aggressive patenting policies:

This … highlights the growing concern that American universities are acting more like commercial firms than academic institutions. The 1980 Bayh-Dole act made it easier for universities to commercialise their research; in 2003, American universities earned $1.3 billion from patents (see chart). Many other countries have passed or are considering similar legislation to emulate America’s university licensing system. The benefit is that it enables discoveries to get into the private sector quickly by giving universities a financial incentive.

But it exposes a conflict of interest: universities want to garner licensing revenue, yet rely on using other organisations’ intellectual property for their research.


  1. It would be interesting to know, assuming it is knowable or even measurable, whether patents granted to universities are qualitatively better than those granted to corporations. Similarly, it would be interesting to know if the relative number of specious patents was lower coming out of universities versus corporations.
    In terms of conflict of interest, perhaps the pendulum is simply swinging in favor of universities temporarily, possibly in reward for decades of “missed” patents they could not afford or justify.

  2. Interesting point. Unfortunately, assessing patent quality in any defensible way is far from straightforward, so I’m not sure we’d ever have a credible answer. And while I’m with you that universities may just be catching up in their patenting, the trouble for universities is in their increasingly aggressive use of the “experimental use” exception — there is a legitimate sense out there than higher ed is trying to have it both ways.