For patents, against open access: The sad state of university leadership

Quick. Name a leader of a major research university who has taken a courageous stand on any important issue in the last decade. I know they’re out there. They must be. But I can’t think of one.

Instead, I’m left dumfounded reading this amicus brief filed in a case – Bowman v. Monsanto – about to be heard by the US Supreme Court.

The case, which pits a farmer who planted soybeans containing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” technology without paying their license fees, boils down to a question of how much control patent holders have in their invention after it has been sold.

I am very interested in the issues in this case – I strongly support the development and use of geneticly modified crops, but also believe that our patent laws are completely out of whack. So a line in the NYT article on the case that universities had filed a brief on behalf of Monsanto caught my eye – all the more so because by own University of California had signed on.

The basic arguments put forth by the universities is that ruling in favor of the farmer would “greatly diminish, and add uncertainty to, the value of patents covering artificial, progenetive technologies” and would “devalue the extensive benefits achieved by the Bayh-Dole Act”.

Why are most of the most prominent state universities in the US arguing in front of the Supreme Court in favor of stronger patent laws? Why do they have any interest in who wins the case? The answer is that universities have become major producers and wielders of intellectual property – profiting, in many cases extensively, from patents taken out on inventions made by their faculty.

I have made no secret of my utter disdain for this process. We would all be better off if there were no patents on inventions produced at state universities and/or by publicly funded scientists. Universities don’t support strengthening patent laws because they believe it’s the right thing to do in some abstract sense, they support strengthening patent laws because it makes them money. And thus university administrators – when faced with a choice between the public good and their balance sheet – choose the money.

Meanwhile, as their lawyers were off siding with major corporations against a small-time farmer, universities have chosen to be completely silent on another major issue pitting corporate greed against the public good: providing free access to papers describing the results of publicly funded research.

A bill was introduced in Congress that would require scientists receiving money from the federal government to make copies of their published work available to the public. While many people from universities across the country have spoken up in favor of this bill and its predecessors, the University of California has never voiced its support for this action, and virtually all other universities have been equally silent.

In failing to support this legislation, universities are not just being passive bystanders. They are a major player in this issue, and their silence is widely interpreted as ambivalence or outright opposition, and helped to ensure that previous versions of this bill never made it out of committee.

So we have major public universities in America that see fit to use their resources to defend stronger patent laws, but choose to let legislation that would provide free access to knowledge to the public. There is only one word to describe this: pathetic.



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  1. EvoStevo
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    The “business” mentality manifest.

  2. Posted February 16, 2013 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    ” the extensive benefits achieved by the Bayh-Dole Act” — I keep asking, and no one has ever been able to tell me what these benefits are in detail. As far as I can tell (e.g., most university tech transfer offices are a slight financial drain; some manage to about cover the costs of their own existence; and a vanishingly small number actually bring significant revenue to the school. There seems to be a gold rush mentality at work: maybe we will one day get our own Remicade/Imatinib/whatever, so we don’t care about the hindrance to science in the meantime.

  3. Posted February 16, 2013 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    For reasons that need not concern us here, I had a bit to do with the “leader” of a major research university some years ago. He was the consummate yes-man, his every public utterance a pablum platitude. I never knew him to say anything that might possibly offend the delicate sensibilities of the rich people the cultivation of whose patronage constituted much of his job.

    “There is only one word to describe this: pathetic.” Oh, I can think of several others. “Venal” and “cowardly” are among the more polite of them.

  4. Posted February 17, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I am surprised that universities aren’t in favor of open access publishing, as it shifts the costs of publication from subscription fees paid by their indirect cost budget to the direct cost budget of individual investigators who pay author fees.

  5. Konrad Scheffler
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Two practical questions:
    A) How much support do you think there is among UC academics on these two issues?
    B) Assuming the amount of support is significant, what can UC academics do to help?

  6. qaz
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    Bill – Although most tech transfers do not make much money, there is a very very long tail. Some of the patents on pharmaceuticals have brought in billions (yes, with a “b”) to those universities that hit it big. The universities are hoping to win that patent lottery.