University Tech Transfer

My colleague Mark Lemley, who teaches intellectual property law at Stanford and who is one the country's most innovative thinkers on information law and policy topics, has posted a new manuscript to a website that hosts initial versions of law professors' work product. Unusually for a law review article, Mark's paper is potentially of broad interest to the economic development community and to university tech transfer offices in particular. Here's the title and the relevant portion of the abstract:

"Are Universities Patent Trolls?"

Link to full paper: Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 980776

The confluence of two significant developments in modern patent practice leads me to write a paper with such a provocative title. The first development is the rise of hold-up as a primary component of patent litigation and patent licensing. The second development in the last three decades is the massive surge in university patenting. At the confluence of these developments is a growing frustration on the part of industry with the role of universities as patent owners. Time and again, when I talk to people in a variety of industries, their view is that universities are the new patent trolls.

In this paper, I argue that Universities should take a broader view of their role in technology transfer. University technology transfer ought to have as its goal maximizing the social impact of technology, not merely maximizing the university's licensing revenue. Sometimes those goals will coincide with the university's short-term financial interests. Sometimes universities will maximize the impact of an invention on society by granting exclusive licenses for substantial revenue to a company that will take the invention and commercialize it. Sometimes, but not always. At other times a non-exclusive license, particularly on a basic enabling technology, will ultimately maximize the invention's impact on society by allowing a large number of people to commercialize in different areas, to try out different things and see if they work, and the like.

University policies might be made more nuanced than simply a choice between exclusive and nonexclusive licenses. For example, they might grant field-specific exclusivity, or exclusivity only for a limited term, or exclusivity only for commercial sales while exempting research, and they might condition continued exclusivity on achievement of certain dissemination goals. Finally, particularly in the software context, there are many circumstances in which the social impact of technology transfer is maximized either by the university not patenting at all or by granting licenses to those patents on a royalty-free basis to all comers.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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