Interface: The Push and Pull of Patents
12 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2009 Last revised: 9 Jan 2015
Date Written: March 17, 2009
Patents, and the profits they enable, exert a tangible "pull" on university research. Influenced by commercial interests, universities may favor research pathways that generate appropriable (i.e., patentable) results, thus diverting resources away from basic research. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that revenue maximization constitutes the overriding goal of most university technology transfer offices. Commercial interests are also influencing university research in a different way, as the rush to patent biomedical research tools may inhibit academic science. Amidst these legitimate concerns, this essay explores an underappreciated, salutary facet of university patenting. While such patenting may accelerate the commercialization of academic science, it also creates opportunities for academic institutions to project their unique normative commitments into the marketplace. In this sense, patents function as interfaces that mediate two-way normative exchange between academics and industry. Increasingly, universities are utilizing patents to "push" a number of nonmarket goals into the private sector, such as ensuring wide access to patented resources for research and public health purposes. Among other effects, these efforts are increasing the availability of patented research tools for noncommercial investigations as well as expanding access to essential medicines in low-income countries. The essay concludes by exploring the normative implications of the push and pull of patents. Eschewing once-size-fits-all prescriptions, it suggests that the unique histories, constituencies, and aspirations of particular institutions should inform their approach to technology transfer.
Keywords: patents, research tools, universities, technology transfer, licensing, equitable access, commercialization
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