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Tuesday, August 9, 2022


Supreme Court protects inventor rights

In Stanford University v. Roche Molecular Systems, the Supreme Court limited a university’s rights to the inventions of its employees. The precedent from the 1700s, that a person owns his ideas, still holds.

At Stanford, Mark Holodniy and others had invented a method, using a polymerase chain reaction, of determining the efficacy of HIV treatments, and then a method of quantifying HIV RNA.

Over the last two decades Holodniy had signed the rights to his current and future inventions with multiple institutions, including Stanford and Cetus Corporation laboratories. Stanford argued that since it had accepted and provided government money to contribute to the research, it, on behalf of the public, should retain some rights.

The University and Small Business Patent Procedures Act of 1980 aimed to protect the social and economic dividends of research. Senator Bayh, one of its sponsors, said that the whims of the inventor should not trump giving back the knowledge to taxpayers, reinvesting profits in research and keeping certain ideas public.

But while Stanford was busy pushing litigation, Roche Systems was gaining approval from the FDA to commercialize the invention, helping millions with HIV in the 1990s. Roche used the fact that Stanford had not successfully done so as evidence that the patent was in rightful hands. The two also had a heated argument about the meaning of the word “retain.” Stanford was reading existing laws much too broadly and skewing Congress’ intentions.

Movements in the intellectual property community often despise the high profits of private commercialization of new products such as these. A for-profit corporation setting prices leads to higher ones, barring many consumers from reaping the benefits of a product.

This is unfortunate and happens all of the time. However, this ignores the stage of the process and motivation.

Giving patent rights to a corporation, at least during development and commercialization, can provide more capital, equipment, personnel, additional corporate contacts and freedom. This environment seems more conducive to efficient experimentation than a university lab.

It is preferable for Roche to put the cellular testing methods on the market years before Stanford can, even with a higher price tag. Paying more is better than not having the option at all. The HIV test kit that the companies developed is now used by millions around the world.

Inventors and corporations are often blinded by financial incentives, one of the best motivators. Universities have more bureaucratic obligations, their assets are spread to a diversity of products, and they are less motivated by profit.

Does it matter that the inventor was motivated by greed? Either way, patients are helped, and helped faster. As long as regulatory agencies screen products and corporations fear lawsuits, inventions should enter the marketplace with the same safety standards.

The fate of inventions once they hit the market is another story. For now this case, decided 7-2, should come as good news to researchers at UH and elsewhere. That said, UH faculty and students should know their rights, maybe pick up Patents, Copyrights, & Trademarks for Dummies and definitely pay attention to what they sign.

Rachel Farhi is a senior English literature and political science double major and may be reached at [email protected]

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