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Will the Uncommon Work for the Common Good?

Yochai Benkler of the Yale Law School has an interesting policy article in a recent issue of Science. It’s on the “Problems of Patents”, and he’s wondering about the application of open-source methods to scientific research. He has two proposals, one of which I’ll talk about today.
In some sort of ideal world (which for some folks also means Back In The Good Old Days of (X) Years Ago), science would be pretty much open-source already. Everyone would be able to find out what everyone else was working on, and comment on it or contribute to it as they saw fit. In chemistry and biology, the closest things we have now, as Benkler notes, are things like the Public Library of Science (open-source publishing) and the genomics tool Ensembl. Moving over to physics and math, you have the ArXiv preprint server, which is further down this path than anything that exists in this end of the world.
Note, of course, that these are all academic projects. Benkler points out that university research departments, for all the fuss about Bayh-Dole patenting, still get the huge majority of their money from granting agencies. He proposes, then, that universities adopt some sort of Open Research License for their technologies, which would let a university use and sublicense them (with no exclusivity) for research and education. (Commercial use would be another thing entirely.) This would take us back, in a way, to the environment of the “research exemption” that was widely thought to be part of patent law until recently (a subject that I keep intending to write about, but am always turned away from by pounding headaches.)
As Benkler correctly notes, though, this would mean that universities would lose their chance for the big payoff should they discover some sort of key research tool. A good example of this would be the Cohen/Boyer recombinant DNA patent, licensed out 467 times by Stanford for hundreds of millions of dollars. And an example of a failed attempt to go for the golden gusto would be the University of Rochester’s reach for a chunk of the revenues from COX-2 inhibitors, despite never having made one. (That’s a slightly unfair summary of the case, I know, but not as far from reality as Rochester would wish it to be.)
That’s another one I should talk about in detail some time, because the decision didn’t rule out future claims of that sort – it just said that you have to be slicker about it than the University of Rochester was. As long as there’s a chance to hit the winning patent lottery ticket, it’s going to be hard to persuade universities to forgo their chance at it. Benkler’s take is that the offsetting gains for universities, under the Open Research License, would be “reduced research impediments and improved public perception of universities as public interest organizations, not private businesses.” To compensate them for the loss of the chance at the big payoff, he suggests “minor increases in public funding of university science.”
Laudable. But will that really do it? As far as I can tell, most universities are pretty convinced already that they’re just about the finest public interest organizations going. I’m not sure that much need for good publicity, rightly or not. And Benkler’s right that a relatively small increase in funding would give universities, on average, what they would make, on average, from chasing patent licensing money. But show me a university that’s willing to admit that it’s just “average.”
The problem gets even tougher as you get to the research departments that really aren’taverage, because they’re simultaneously the ones with technologies that would be most useful to the broader research community and the ones with the best chance of hitting on something big. I’ll be surprised – pleasantly, but still very surprised – if the big heavy research lifters of the world agree to any such thing.

4 comments on “Will the Uncommon Work for the Common Good?”

  1. SRC says:

    … the University of Rochester’s reach for a chunk of the revenues from COX-2 inhibitors, despite never having made one. (That’s a slightly unfair summary of the case, I know, but not as far from reality as Rochester would wish it to be.)

    Actually, it’s a perfectly factual summary of the case. An unfair summary would be that they invented a new shovel, and wanted royalties on any gold found with it, despite having no clue whatever where gold might be found.
    Benkler’s problem is simple: he presumes that universities operate as public interest organizations. They are no more public interest organizations than is Microsoft. They are businesses – just poorly run ones. It’s time they beamed out of the late Middle Ages of their nascence, realized that, and moved up to at least the 17th century or so in their thinking.

  2. jsinger says:

    First, I hope you’re going to return to skewer his second point. I don’t understand why people are so convinced that a model that works for software development can readily be applied to every other human endeavor. Second, is there a way to get paragraph breaks here? Without a preview function, I’m reluctant to experiment. Third, the sort of prejudicial licensing he prescribes is absolutely contrary to the “free software” guidelines, and I believe it violates “open-source” guidelines, as well. What he’s advocating is really just being “nicer” and has nothing to do with open-source and doesn’t involve the creation of new licensing paradigms.

  3. Derek Lowe says:

    Yep, Henkler’s second point will be explored with some scepticism, shortly.

    And as you can see, it’s possible to get paragraph breaks in these comments, but you have to HTML them – use the (open carat)p(close carat) and (open carat)/p(close carat) at the beginning and end of the paragraph, and it’ll break the way you want. I’ll see if we can get a more intuitive way to work, though.

  4. Sigivald says:

    FYI, the Ensemble and ArXiv links are broken.

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