Speeding good ideas from college to marketplace

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Stanford University, which claims it cooks up patentable idea once every 14 working hours, will make $600,000 this year by licensing private companies to use some of these ideas.

The University of California made more than $1.2 million from patents this year, up from $580,000 in 1978, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will take in $700,000.

And those figures are likely to increase because of a measure passed by Congress last week. the bill would permit universities to retain ownership of patents from federally funded research, unless the government predetermines that it will keep the patent rights for the public use.

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The bill, an amendment to the Patent and Trademark Act of 1980, is touted as a way of speeding the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. It allows universities to open to private development patentable ideas that up to now have been held by the government. And because the bill allows universities to grant exclusive rights to patents across the board, these projects become more valuable to both the inventor and the developer.

Proponents of the bill maintain it usually costs 10 times more to develop a patent into a marketplace product than it does to discover the original idea. If a patentable idea is in the public domain, open to development by an number of firms, a company is less likely to invest in the idea if it cannot gain exlusive rights to it.

Universities -- which spent more than $4.5 million for research in 1978, more than $3 billion of which came from the federal government -- generally have rejected the notion of going commercial with their discoveries and instead have placed emphasis on strong patent-licensing programs.

These programs try to find private companies which are interested in developing university-held patents, rather than having the university get into the business itself. The companies pay a fee for the privilege of using each idea

Currently, 22 different patent policies are used in US agencies that dole out research money to US schools. Some codes force agencies to claim patent rights on university research even when they do not want them. Patent rights are often reassigned to the university, but only after an involved review process. The bill will serve as a uniform code, and eliminate the need for lengthly review.

"It's [the bill] going to create a marked increase in the number of inventions from universities that go into commercial use," says Norman Latker, a patent lawyer with the Small Business Administration, which supports the bill (it also contains provisions giving similar rights to small businesses). "The intent is to create an incentive on the part of universities to transfer technology in the form of inventions to commercial use."

But some observers discount the idea of a patent cornucopia being opened up by the legislation.

"We hope there will be an increase in the reporting of inventions," says Howard Brimmer, an attorney, who works with the organization that handles patents for the University of Wisconsin. "But I'm not looking for any great flood."

"If you want to see an idea developed, you have to offer protection to the guy who does the work," says David Dressler, Harvard associate professor of biochemistry. Patents in the hands of government become public record, which means a private development program could be scuttled by competition after the basic work has been done. "If you don't agree that people should be able to invent things and make money from them, then you don't believe in capitalism," Mr. Dressler says.

Opponents maintain the bill is a violation of the public trust, helping to hand federally funded research over to private business.

One avid opponent, Adm. Hyman Rickover, who testified against the patent bill several times, is known to have said privately that the bill would encourage universities to focus their research on developing marketplace ideas, rather than on education.

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