When universities invent, those inventions should benefit everyone. Unfortunately, they sometimes end up in the hands of patent trolls—companies that serve no purpose but to amass patents and demand money from others. When a university sells patents to trolls, it undermines the university’s purpose as a driver of innovation. Those patents become landmines that make innovation more difficult.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about the problem of universities selling or licensing patents to trolls. We said that the only way that universities will change their patenting and technology transfer policies is if students, professors, and other members of the university community start demanding it.
It’s time to start making those demands.
We’re launching Reclaim Invention, a new initiative to urge universities to rethink how they use patents. If you think that universities should keep their inventions away from the hands of patent trolls, then use our form to tell them.
A Simple Promise to Defend Innovation
Central to our initiative is the Public Interest Patent Pledge (PIPP), a pledge we hope to see university leadership sign. The pledge says that before a university sells or licenses a patent, it will first check to make sure that the potential buyer or licensee doesn’t match the profile of a patent troll:
When determining what parties to sell or license patents to, [School name] will take appropriate steps to research the past practices of potential buyers or licensees and favor parties whose business practices are designed to benefit society through commercialization and invention. We will strive to ensure that any company we sell or license patents to does not have a history of litigation that resembles patent trolling. Instead, we will partner with those who are actively working to bring new technologies and ideas to market, particularly in the areas of technology that those patents inhabit.
One of our sources of inspiration for the pledge was the technology transfer community itself. In 2007, the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) released a document called Nine Points to Consider, which advocates transferring to companies that are actively working in the same fields of technology the patents cover, not those that will simply use them to demand licensing fees from others. More recently, the Association of American Universities (AAU) launched a working group on technology transfer policy, and that group’s early recommendations closely mirror AUTM’s (PDF). EFF has often found itself on the opposite side of policy fights from AUTM and AAU, but we largely agree with them on this issue that something needs to change.
Despite that good advice, many research universities continue to sell patents to trolls. Just a few weeks ago, we wrote about My Health, a company that appears to do nothing but file patent and trademark lawsuits. Its primary weapon is a patent from the University of Rochester. Rochester isn’t alone: dozens of universities regularly license patents to the notorious mega-troll Intellectual Ventures.
Good intentions and policy statements won’t solve the problem. Universities will change when students, professors, and alumni insist on it.
Local Organizers: You Can Make a Difference
We’re targeting this campaign at every college and university in the United States, from flagship state research institutions to liberal arts colleges. Why? Because patents affect everyone. The licensing decisions that universities make today will strengthen or sabotage the next generation of inventors and innovators. Together, we can make a statement that universities want more innovation-friendly laws and policies nationwide.
It would be impossible for any one organization to persuade every college and university to sign the pledge, so we’re turning to our network of local activists in the Electronic Frontier Alliance and beyond.
We’ve designed our petition to make it easy for local organizers to share the results with university leadership. For example, here are all of the people who’ve signed the petition with a connection to the University of South Dakota. If you volunteer for the USD digital civil liberties club—or if you’ve been looking to start it—then your group could write a letter to university leadership urging them to sign the pledge, and include the names of all of the signatories. We’re eager to work with you to make sure your voice is heard. You can write me directly with any questions.
Reclaim Invention represents a new type of EFF campaign. This is the first time we’ve launched a campaign targeting thousands of local institutions at once. It’s a part of our ongoing work to unite the efforts of grassroots digital rights activists across the country. Amazing things can happen when local activists coordinate their efforts.