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Abstract

Hold-up is a primary component of patent litigation and patent licensing today. Universities are engaged in an unprecedented surge in patenting. At the confluence of these seemingly unrelated developments is a growing frustration on the part of industry with the role of universities as patent owners. Time and again, when I talk to people in a variety of industries, their view is that universities are the new patent trolls. In this article, I argue that universities should take a broader view of their role in technology transfer. University technology transfer ought to have as its goal maximizing the social impact of technology, not merely maximizing the university’s licensing revenue. Sometimes those goals will coincide with the university’s short-term financial interests. Sometimes universities will maximize the impact of an invention on society by granting exclusive licenses for substantial revenue to a company that will take the invention and commercialize it. Sometimes, but not always. At other times a non-exclusive license, particularly on a basic enabling technology, will ultimately maximize the invention’s impact on society by allowing a large number of people to commercialize in different areas, to try out different things and see if they work, and the like. University policies might be made more nuanced than simply a choice between exclusive and non-exclusive licenses. For example, they might grant fieldspecific exclusivity, or exclusivity only for a limited term, or exclusivity only for commercial sales while exempting research, and they might condition continued exclusivity on achievement of certain dissemination goals. Particularly in the software context, there are many circumstances in which the social impact of technology transfer is maximized either by the university not patenting at all or by granting licenses to those patents on a royalty-free basis to all comers. Finally, I think we can learn something about the raging debate over who is a patent troll and what to do about trolls by looking at university patents. Universities are non-practicing entities. They share some characteristics with trolls, at least if the term is broadly defined, but they are not trolls. Asking what distinguishes universities from trolls can actually help us figure out what concerns us about trolls. What we ought to do is abandon the search for a group of individual companies to define as bad actors. In my view, troll is as troll does. Universities will sometimes be bad actors. So will non-manufacturing patent owners. So will manufacturing patent owners. Instead of singling out bad actors, we should focus on the bad acts and the laws that make them possible.

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