Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Patents - A "Dirty Secret"

I am not involved in academia so I am not that knowledgeable about the "research game". What has been troubling me with the "research game" is that I kept reading articles on universities and professors suing each other over "patents". I had found these articles to be disturbing since most research is funded by the Federal government and I had assumed that the results of all publicly funded (taxpayer paid) research would be in the public domain.

Then one day, I ran across a TechDirt article that mentioned the Bayh-Dole Act. This act, according to Wikipedia, " ... gave US universities, small businesses and non-profits intellectual property control of their inventions and other intellectual property that resulted from such funding. The Act, sponsored by two senators, Birch Bayh of Indiana and Bob Dole of Kansas, was enacted by the United States Congress on December 12, 1980." Well, so much for our esteemed Congressional representatives protecting the taxpayers.

Once again the free market is being debased by special interest legislation that creates a favorable business environment for a privileged group. As an aside, I also had the Utopian belief that research was being performed for altruistic reasons to benefit mankind, I guess I was wrong. Add this to the list of "bad" legislation that "steals" taxpayer's property for the benefit (subsidization) of private enterprise.


Thomas Tvivlaren said...

Good point! Another side of it is that most research is actually derived, one way or the other, from state funded research which results in pharmaceutical companies - who are believed to spend load of bucks on research - in fact are spending more money on marketing...

Steve R. said...

The situation is actually a bit worse than I described in the post. I tend to get a bit wordy when writing so I attempted to restrain myself by not getting into the issue below.

Back in 2006 the US Supreme Court agreed to hear Metabolite v. Labcorp but then dismissed it. Wikipedia wrote "LabCorp v. Metabolite, Inc. is a court case related to the patentability of scientific principles". This was an outgrowth of research conducted by three university doctors. There is a summary here on Patent Prospector and a summary here on Wikipedia. A copy of the dissent is here.

It's unfortunate that the US Supreme Court failed to overturn the lower court decision on Metabolite v. Labcorp. So here we have university researchers who have developed a test to identify what ails a patients claiming that they are entitled to payment, if the test is used, since the test was patented. I guess the Hippocratic Oath and the health of the patient are irrelevant.

Not to mention the absurdity of being able to obtain a patent for "uncovering" the correlation between two natural things. In this case the indication that the level of homocysteine (an amino acid) in one's body could imply vitamin deficiency.

PS: The record, as far as I have seen, does not disclose if the university research was publicly funded or privately funded.

Thomas Tvivlaren said...

The patent system is truly ridiculous in many if not most parts of the legislation! And I say that from a European point of view. The US situation is sadly even worse.

Steve R. said...

By coincidence, TechDirt is reporting that: "Rep. Conyers, Once Again, Trying To Lock Up Federally Funded Research"

So here we have an example of a private enterprise complaining that the government is interfering in their business when the government makes a reasonable request that they publish their research results in a timely manner.

Of course, the fact that the government is funding the research is somehow irrelevant. Seems to me, if the government funds the work, the government has a right to require that the recipient comply with the government's request to publish in a timely manner. If they don't want to comply, then don't take the money.

It's also unfortunate that this is another example of a Congress person acting as a lackey of corporate interests.