University Report on Tech Transfer and the Public Interest

By Eric Goldman

Twelve academic institutions have released a white paper entitled In the Public Interest: Nine Points to Consider in Licensing University Technology. The report purports to articulate “best” practices by universities in the technology transfer business. The report contains pearls of wisdom such as “it reflects poorly on universities to be involved in ‘nuisance suits’” (true, but this statement applies to all plaintiffs, not just universities!) and “universities would better serve the public interest by ensuring appropriate use of their technology by requiring their licensees to operate under a business model that encourages commercialization and does not rely primarily on threats of infringement litigation to generate revenue.”

Generally draped in high-minded rhetoric (e.g., “Universities have a social compact with society”), the report reads more like the kind of pronouncements that a cartel would issue to conform the behavior of rogue constituents–complete with example licensing provisions that are designed to become industry standards. Nevertheless, it’s a implicit admission from universities that they can do serious violence to social innovation when they engage in regressive and rent-seeking licensing practices. But so long as universities view tech transfer as an important revenue source that’s not dependent on capricious legislators or government bureaucrats, what incentives will university tech transfer offices have to fold public interests into their licensing or enforcement equations?