On June 6, 2011, the Supreme Court rejected Stanford’s arguments that provisions of the Bayh-Dole Act created university ownership rights to inventions made by university employees with federal funding. (A copy of the decision is found at the end of this post.) In effect, the Court held that an assignment in hand is worth (more than) two rights to elect under the Act. Stanford was trying to read the provisions of the Act that give universities the right to elect to retain title to inventions made with government funding to, in fact, vest title in the universities at the time the invention was made; essentially Stanford wanted the Court to read “retain” to mean “acquire or receive.” The Court rejected this interpretation, finding that “You cannot retain something unless you already have it” and, without an assignment from the inventor in hand, Stanford had nothing to retain. Any language in the Act relating to its superiority over other acts disposing of rights, the Court held, does not displace the basic principle that, in the first instance, an inventor owns the rights to his/her invention.
The Court felt that this disposition of rights was only fair since, otherwise, a university could assert rights to inventions conceived prior to the inventor’s employment, so long as reduction of practice used any amount of federal funding while the inventor was an employee. Also, a very small amount of federal funding, combined with funding from other sources, would permit the university to claim title to the entirety of the invention.
Universities and other non-profit research institutions must now be more careful than “usual” to obtain early assignments from their researcher-employees. In the past, many universities operated with “patent policies” requiring employees to assign inventions made with “university support”— e.g., on campus — to the university, but did not uniformly require employees to sign the policies before beginning employment, much less to sign blanket assignments of future inventions, like the one Roche/Cetus had in place for visitors/consultants. Rather, the university would wait until the filing of a patent application to obtain an assignment. Even with such early-assignment policies, it was not uncommon for prospective professor-hires to contract out of such policies, so that inventions conceived prior to their taking new positions would not be owned by their new employers. A lot of inventions were conceived while the professors were traveling from one university to another. Recently, I have been seeing invention disclosure forms that contain built-in assignments, so that when a professor submits the form to the tech transfer office, he/she is simultaneously assigning it. This is good practice IF the professor still has rights to assign.
AUTM President Robin Rasor’s blog Supreme Court Decision in Stanford vs. Roche
Roche Wins as High Court Limits University Patent Rights, Businessweek, June 6