Faculty Ownership of Research Affirmed

By Kathi Westcott

The US Supreme Court in June handed down a victory for faculty members by ruling that federal patent law favors the rights of individual researchers over those of their employers. The case was Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University v. Roche Molecular Systems, Inc.

At issue in the complex case was the interpretation of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which was intended in part to help inventions make it from the drafting board to the marketplace by limiting the government’s control of the inventions and enhancing the right of universities and other federal grantees to develop commercially inventions funded with federal grants. Historically, academic researchers have owned their inventions and have assigned some or all of their rights to their colleges and universities either through individual contracts or through institutional policies. In this case, a Stanford University researcher signed competing agreements with the university and with a collaborating private company, muddying the ownership rights to an important medical test that the researcher developed and that was then produced for use by the public.

Stanford sought to claim sole ownership of the medical test by asking the Supreme Court to interpret the Bayh-Dole Act as giving academic institutions and other federal grantees exclusive rights to their employees’ inventions. Stanford and many other research universities that filed briefs in its support also argued that faculty members are employees hired to invent and are therefore not entitled to ownership of their inventive research.

The AAUP, in its amicus brief, argued that Bayh-Dole does not alter the basic ownership rights granted to inventors by law and that it simply helps bring inventions forward to benefit the public good by clarifying that the government assigns to universities and other grantees the claim to ownership over federally funded inventions. The AAUP’s brief also argued that academic researchers and inventors are, and have traditionally been, much more than mere employees of their institutions. They are an integral source of learning, and their research advances the common good.

The Court agreed, finding that the Bayh-Dole Act dictates the relationship between the government and federal grantees, not the relationship between those grantees and inventors. The Court ruled that US patent law has favored and should continue to favor the rights of individual inventors and that universities seeking to claim rights to inventions must get explicit concurrence from the researchers involved.