Should research funded by the public be patented?

It is now legal for scientists who have created new biotechnology products or methods based on research funded by the public to patent what they’ve devised, and to start companies selling their method/product—enriching themselves (and their universities) immensely. This is a relatively new thing to do with publicly-funded work (see below), but it seems unethical. If you charge the public for, say, a cancer therapy devised using National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, aren’t taxpayers who use it paying twice?

Now,  of course, private companies have the right to patent their biotech creations, as those are funded by investors. But it seems manifestly unfair for scientists to enrich themselves from what they’ve created by dining at the public trough. One result of this is the nasty fight between UC Berkeley and the Broad Institute (affiliated with Harvard and MIT) about who gets the patent rights to the CRISP/Cas9 method for editing genes. (For now the Broad has won, but Berkeley is contesting that decision.)

Not all scientists try to enrich themselves this way. Jonas Salk famously refused to patent the polio vaccine, saying, “Could you patent the sun?”  That famous statement, however, may not reflect complete altruism, as it appears that the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (funded by public contributions like the “March of Dimes”) investigated patents and decided the vaccine wasn’t patentable.  But Salk himself, who tested the vaccine on his own family, may also have nixed that effort. A clearer example is the software for the World Wide Web, which CERN put into the public domain with an open license, allowing widespread use. They could have sold it.

I have no objection to scientists enriching themselves if their discoveries were made with private funding and didn’t impede any official University duties (when you get an NIH grant, for instance, you pledge to spend X% of your personal time on the work it funds). But CRISPR/Cas9, like the polio vaccine, was financed in the U.S. largely by U.S. taxpayers.

In the end, I agree with Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, who argues that “Patents are destroying the soul of academic science“. Here are his reasons, given in a post on his website:

The academic quest for patents is no longer the side story. Where once technology licensing staff rushed to secure intellectual property before scientists blab about their work, patents now, in many quarters, dominate the game. Experiments are done to stake out claims, new discoveries are held in secrecy and talks and publication are delayed so as not to interfere with patent claims. This is bad enough. But the most worrying trend has been the willingness of some researchers and research institutions to distort history, demean their colleagues and misrepresent the scientific process to support these efforts.

. . . Academic science is, after all, largely funded by the public. By all rights discoveries made on with public funds should belong to the public. And not too long ago they did. But legislation passed in 1980 – the Bayh-Dole Act – gave universities the right to claim patents on inventions made by their researchers on the public dime. Prior to 1980 these patents belonged to the federal government and many languished unused. The logic of Bayh-Dole was that, if they owned patents in their work, universities and other grantees would be incentivized to have their inventions turned into products, thereby benefiting the public.

But this is not how things worked out. Encouraged by a small number of patents that made huge sums, universities developed massive infrastructure to profit from their researchers. Not only do they spend millions on patents, they’ve turned every interaction scientists have with each other into an intellectual property transaction. Everything I get from or send to a colleague at another academic institution involves a complex legal agreement whose purpose is not to promote science but to protect the university’s ability to profit from hypothetical inventions that might arise from scientists doing what we’re supposed to do – share our work with each other.

And the idea that this system promotes the transformation of inventions made with public funding into products is laughable. CRISPR is a perfect case in point. The patent battle between UC and The Broad is likely to last for years. Meanwhile companies interested in actually developing CRISPR into new products are stymied by a combination of a lack of clarity about with whom to negotiate, and universities being difficult negotiating partners.

It would be so much easier if the US government simply placed all work arising from federal dollars into the public domain. We have a robust science and technology industry ready to exploit new ideas, and entrepreneurs and venture capitalists eager to fill in where existing companies are uninterested. Taxpayers would benefit by allowing the market, and not university licensing offices, to decide whose ideas and products make the best use of publicly funded inventions.

And most importantly we all would benefit returning academic science to its roots in basic discovery oriented research. We see with CRISPR the toxic effects of turning academic institutions into money hungry hawkers of intellectual property. Pursuit of patent riches has transformed The Broad Institute, which houses some of the most talented scientists working today, into a prominent purveyor of calumny.

Of course I’m asking readers here if they agree. I do.


  1. Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I have already read another of Eisen’s articles, where he lambastes the head of the Broad Institute, Eric Lander. Whether he is entirely correct, I know not. I have read many times that much research is funded by public money, only to be patented by private companies afterwards. It would be nice if the money could be recycled to fund more research.

    • Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      I read that article and Lander’s Science piece, too. I think Eisen is right: the Broad Institute, with Lander as its head, was trying to denigrate the contributions of investigators like Doudna and Charpentier. It’s pretty clear if you know the story and then read Lander’s rewriting of history.

  2. Kevin
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Without the option to consider using a patent, science would suffer. Even those who are not motivated by patents would still be more motivated knowing the option for a patent exists.

    Profound patents are unlikely to emerge from a benighted person who would horde their royalties and blow it all in Vegas. It is more likely the case that really successful patenters will re-endorse aspects of the science associated with their patents, either through the creation of foundations or re-rewarding private and/or academic institutions with flexible grant money that is returned from such patents.

  3. Jeremy Tarone
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    In the case of taxpayer paid medical equipment or drug research the US taxpayer pays twice, and pays the highest prices in the world. Those taxpayers who can’t afford the newest drugs (or latest hip implant) pay for the research but can’t benefit from it.

    I can’t speak to the negative consequences of patents and research/academia, but taxpayers should at least be getting a slice of any profits. In taxpayer funded schools the taxpayer should get most if not all the profits.

    This is what any business would expect.
    Employees don’t usually get to patent their work when they are on the businesses time. I don’t see why it should be any different at universities or colleges. If they demand a share they can negotiate for such on their contract and take corresponding cuts in benefits, tenure and/or salary.

    But this is just one more non starter in the current political/business climate where businesses reap profits but offloads costs onto the taxpayer.

    • Johan Richter
      Posted May 12, 2017 at 3:01 am | Permalink

      I am very grateful for the high drug prices you Americans pay, without them there would be much less drug development. I believe the drug companies contribute substantially to the development process, they are not just free-riding on the government research.

  4. Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m increasingly hostile to the very premise behind “intellectual property” in all forms.

    In theory, in its earliest forms, it at least superficially seemed like a good idea: give people a profit motive to be creative and they’ll be more likely to be creative.

    But the evidence is overwhelming that people are creative with or without profit motive, and that those who profit from creativity aren’t the ones who actually create anything. Further, there’s no shortage of creativity in the world — just look at all the artists, musicians, authors, and the like who’d love to make a living at their craft but can’t get anybody to pay them to do so. As for the profit side, look at all the record companies that make millions off of pop song schlock.

    How much longer do we have to keep running this experiment before we realize that the theory isn’t consistent with the observations?

    Some form of Basic Income would likely go a long way to remedying this catastrophe….



    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      So from each according to their ability, to each according to their need? 🙂

      • Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        A Basic Income is radically different from Marxism, even as idealized and especially as realized in the Soviet Bloc.

        And either it or something equally radical of whatever form is coming soon. Not only are all those jobs lost to automation not coming back, but YUGE swaths of other industries are on the verge of being automated to an even greater degree than manufacturing.

        Up next is the largest single remaining job sector: transportation. Taxi companies already have robot taxies, with dummy humans at the wheel for social acceptability. But they’ll be there exactly as long as the elevator attendants who pushed the buttons for people.

        The professions aren’t far behind. ADP and Intuit and the like have already automated accounting, for the most part. And, if reports are to be believed, IBM’s Watson is already a better doctor than your own GP.

        So, when all the truck and taxi drivers are elbowing the doctors and lawyers for burger-flipping jobs that also got automated…how do you expect people to work for a living?

        The obvious answer is that we have more people to work than work that needs to be done, so “work for a living” is an absurdity. “Making a living” is going to be decoupled from “work,” one way or another.




    • sshort
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      The question of a Basic Income is coming soon to a developed nation near you. And possibly much sooner than you think. has an article today on an automated container ship: “YARA X kongsberg to launch world’s first autonomous zero-emissions ship” (didn’t want to chance embedding). the article states ” ‘every day, more than 100 diesel truck journeys are needed to transport products from YARA’s pprsgrunn plant to ports in brevik and larvik where we ship products to customers around the world”

      Estimate a support staff of at least 10 to add to the 100+ drivers needed daily. lots o’ jobs out the window. it’s gonna be a tsunami when all these intelligent systems hit.

      Sorry to disrupt the thread. Publicly funded research should remain open to the public.

    • somer
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      The Soviet Union was a hive of creativity. Its a demon of a problem tho – between encouraging the hard unsexy work of developing research findings to useable technology or applications and preventing/cutting down on exploitation or even the ultimate development of socially harmful applications.

      • somer
        Posted May 11, 2017 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        But Im inclined to think publicly funded scientific knowledge is always better just put into the public domain

        • KD33
          Posted May 12, 2017 at 12:08 am | Permalink

          What do you mean by this? Something beyond the research (in the form of publications) being accessible to the public?

    • Johan Richter
      Posted May 12, 2017 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      Do you really think that Hollywood style movies would be made for the share love of art? Or that drug companies would take drugs through the expensive and long trial process without some form of recompense.

      Intellectual property is not perfect, but before we remove it we need an alternative system of monetary incentives.

      • Posted May 12, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        + 1

      • Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Do you really think that Hollywood style movies would be made for the share love of art?

        Not merely, “Yes,” but, “Hell yes!”

        Have you any idea how many would-be actors and screenwriters and the like are waiting tables in LA because they can’t break into the movie business?

        Now, imagine that they don’t have to spend 60 hours a week waiting tables because of Basic Income. Do you really think that none of them are going to leap at the chance to live their dreams?

        Basic Income will bring with it a positive explosion of creativity and artistic output. I mean, that’s the whole frickin’ point!




  5. Randy schenck
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Why should the tax payer get screwed. If you are working for a company as a scientist, you don’t get to patent anything you discover, and your contract of employment will certainly tell you that. It all belongs to your employer. Why would the tax payer be less? Also, without public funds to work on specific problems who would do it. Not the big drug companies – they follow the money.

  6. KD33
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    My perspective: I’m familiar with typical university I.P. mechanisms in the area of tech and medical technology. (I’m a scientist by training but have mostly been involved with smaller companies developing and commercializing new technologies.) Patenting is managed through a university licensing office, which will make available to commercial entities rights to a patent (or application in process) in exchange for royalties on future sales and possibly a small amount of equity, and also require the licensing company to help pay for patent costs. In exchange, any university inventors (grad students, professor) are entitled to a % of the revenue that flows back to the university as a result of the license.

    I would note two things: 1) the road to successful commercialization is almost always long and expensive, and yields nothing in all but very rare cases, an 2) it is very rare that the university inventors make out financially in any significant way. The CRISP examples are an extreme outlier.

    In my career I have generally found this a fair arrangement, and I personally have no issue with this approach even for research funded by, say, the NIH and the NSF. (By the way, those and other agencies have SBIR and other programs that use taxpayer money specifically designed to support transition to commercial development, which is a key mechanism for transitioning inventions and new technologies to become available to the general public. The idea is that early stage commercialization is too risky to be pursued by R&D resources allotted by most companies, and these programs help bridge that gap. The SBIR programs are highly competitive and, as I understand generally successful – just thought you should know that your tax dollars *are* being used to aid commercialization.)

    Danger could arise if the coupling between an investigator’s research and potential for personal financial gain is too strong. Constrained to the arrangement described above, I’ve never seen grant – funded research aims perturbed by this. (Anyone have counter examples?) But some university researchers get directly involved with the commercial entity, which is more common these days (in tech, it’s in vogue for a professor to found a company and sit on its advisory board, perhaps even consult for a number of hours). Co-founders can own significant stakes in new companies. Most universities have very strict rules about what is allowed, with a firm wall between research and commercial interests, and the vast majority of university researchers are highly ethical. But obviously proceed with caution if big money is involved.

    • KD33
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      A thought stemming from other comments: the university licensing model *could* include payback to the taxpayer (via IRS?) in the form of a % of the license revenue paid from company to university; this as recognition that the enabling research was publicly funded. But this would pale in comparison to the taxes that a company pays when its commercialization is successful. This is the real way in which businesses benefit the public financially (general increase in the economy, employment, and any beneficial results of the commercialization). I am not arguing that this is entirely fair or that tax rates are appropriate, just bringing up the mechanism.

      • Posted May 11, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for sharing this information. Being ignorant of this whole process relative to
        publicly funded university research that is patented by the university, I now have more direction for private “research” if I’m not too lazy to follow it. I recently learned that OSU
        (Oregon State University) holds the patent on a GMO wheat that is almost the only wheat planted now in Oregon and most of the world.

  7. Stephen Barnard
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    This is a hard question for me. On the one hand, it seems unfair to the public. On the other, people respond to incentives. Does the incentive of getting rich influence researchers in biomed, determining what research programs they choose and how hard they work on them? Almost certainly.

    • Posted May 11, 2017 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps every grant should require that a share in patent profits be returned to the granting agency, as Bob Terrace suggests below. But I wouldn’t cap the repayment.

  8. Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    If the institutions (and/or governments) want to keep patents, they should have agreements signed by employees/researchers that makes that provision.

    I have to sign such an agreement to work at my company.

    We do get a (moderate) bonus for filing a patent; and I can tell you that even that modest cash award is a significant motivator to people filing patents here. (I’ve filed a few patents here.)

    Preparing the paperwork is a hassle, a pain in the tuchus. US patents are now first-to-file, so filing is key. The company (rightfully in my opinion) has a system for screening patents to decide which ideas are worth the trouble and cost to file. Again, a pain.

    If you don’t file, then your competitor eats your lunch, or some “patent aggregator” holds you for ransom over it.

    The other main motivator is the recognition from your colleagues. This is also a strong motivator. The patent certificate plaque is highly valued.

    • KD33
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Patent aggregators – arrgghh! Now *they* are an abomination!

  9. mikeyc
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I work in cancer research and I often face the kinds of legal limitations described by Eisen on work we do here.

    Overall, I agree with the point; if public funds are used, the public should have access to the discoveries, whether that is I.P. or the publications themselves (I agree with Dr. Ceiling Cat that scientific publications derived from public funds should be freely available).

    However, there are a couple of issues that spring to mind;

    1) What happens to work that is only partially funded by the public? For example, my lab is working under four grants, only one of which come from a public agency (the others are private non-profits like the ACA). How would I.P. be apportioned under these circumstances? If it is to be apportioned, how is that to be done? Grants are not necessarily equal in amount contributed to or the scope or impact on the work. And if the public gets some of the I.P. shouldn’t the other granting entities as well?

    2) No one can do their work without institutional support; infrastructure, employment, resources, etc. The institute the scientists work at have skin in the game too, so why shouldn’t they be able to claim at least some of that I.P.? They are materially important to the discovery; without them it would not have happened. Don’t they have a claim too?

    • KD33
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Yes, they do have a claim at almost any university. Revenue from I.P. licenses is paid mostly (but not all) to the inventors. Whether the rate is fair is another question.

      Through all theses discussions, your notion of the “public have access” to the inventions arises. But what does that mean? Anyone can read the research papers (journals behind paywalls aside!). But university inventions are almost always useless to greater society without the type of development that occurs at least in part in a business environment (and require development which is in most cases *more* extensive and expensive – though not necessarily more creative – than the initial research idea). Any discussions of what is fair, and how taxpayers should benefit, need to consider that aspect (see my other comments…)

  10. BobTerrace
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I think it should go into the public domain with 20% of the profits going back to the government until 200% of the investment is paid back. And some percentage, maybe 2% can be given to the scientist. Money returned the government should go into a fund for other research only.

  11. dph
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that public funds should be totally repaid (with interest) before any profits are realized.

    But that is not enough. If it is a drug, the price (as we have seen) can be set enormously high. So while the patent is issued, the government should retain some kind of license so that if price gouging occurs it can immediately contract out for a generic version of the drug.

  12. Craw
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I agree, mostly.

    Alex Tabbarok has done some interesting research on patents and how they work out in different industries. I agree with his general take, that there are too many areas where we allow patents. The places where they are really needed are in industries where safety regulations impose serious costs and delays, such as pharmaceuticals.

    What about copyrights? Should professors get copyright on books based on their research or teaching? Don’t many of the arguments above suggest the book WEIT should be public domain?

  13. Posted May 11, 2017 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking about this the other day, if the public paid for it the public should share in any proceeds earned out of the deal, until the public’s money is repaid. However, I don’t think it serves progress well to discourage people who need grants for science and research by owning them for it. It needs to be paid back to the coffer it came from and absolutely should serve and benifit Americans first (tax payers).

  14. Andy
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but no, I think this is one of the worst ideas ever. I suspect that this sort of argument is primarily just an attack on publicly funded research. I’ll see if I can explain why:

    If universities / scientists have no interest in securing patents, but companies still do, then all that would happen is that patent trolls would mine (troll?) through publicly funded research to patent anything interesting, thus depriving the inventor of reward, and granting vast new powers to private companies.

    Unless, that is, you’d want to apply the same rule to companies (any research based even in part on publicly funded work is not patentable). Actually I’m mostly OK with that, but it would probably require rewriting the constitution… In the US the constitution guarantees rights to authors and inventors; not funding bodies. Do you really want to change that?

    In practical terms, it’s usually specified in contracts who controls the commercial rights (inventor, funder, employer, or what). So there is some potential wriggle room for just including it in the terms and conditions of grants. But since most universities have a mix of funding sources, you can bet that only the unrestricted work would lead to patents. 😉 Similarly, this might initiate a two-tier system of costs: sure, you can own any patents that result, but the research will cost more if a research institute cannot hope for future revenues.

    However, there are big flaws in the patent system. Really I think the issue is not public vs private, but in what can be patented. In the US in particular it’s way too broad and cases usually just boil down to who can sue for longest without running out of money. I think one problem is that basic science or trivial algorithms and obvious ideas can be patented; rather than inventions. How you draw that line would be tough…

    So, like I said, I think the whole argument is really a false flag, pretending to “free” publicly funded research, when the real goal is just to ensure that all of the benefits go to private companies. It’s like “trickle-down” economics, but for patents; perhaps if only private companies can hold patents, we’ll really all be richer, right?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      “Really I think the issue is not public vs private, but in what can be patented. ”

      Absolutely agree. Patent applications should be subject to far more intense scrutiny, and obvious, over-broad patents should be rejected. It should not be possible for large companies to collect ‘arsenals’ of patents and sue over trivial issues such as the shape of a gadget.

      Nor should naturally occurring compounds (developed by nature!) be patentable, or, in general, algorithms.

      The original idea behind patents was to encourage the development of new processes. The history of patents has been, in general, the exact opposite – the suppression of competition by means of legal threats and intimidation.

      And obviously, patent trolls should be prevented from trying to patent anyone else’s work – ‘prior art’ should invalidate that automatically. The patent office should be far more agressive in checking patent applications – but of course that would require much more funding and be opposed to the interests of ‘business’ so that won’t happen.


    • Adam M.
      Posted May 12, 2017 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      I basically agree with you, but we should remember that the Constitution authorizes Congress to grant a temporary monopoly on discoveries and writings “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”, i.e. to enrich the public domain. Congress is not required to grant monopoly rights, and indeed should only do so when it serves the public interest, because that “right” is in fact a restriction on everyone else.

      What best serves the public interest is a difficult question to answer, of course. It could be placing it in the public domain, or granting a monopoly but with pro rata profiting from discoveries (so if the NIH provides 70% of the funding they get 70% of the profit), or something else, but letting private entities completely monopolize the results of publicly funded discoveries is probably not it.

      • Posted May 13, 2017 at 6:21 am | Permalink

        This. There are enormous economic losses associated with monopolization, so if there are other ways to motivate research – such as handing out grant money! – they stand a good chance of better serving the public interest.

        If a researcher thinks the government’s terms are too stingy, they can always seek private funding and get their full patent rights – or whatever fraction of patent rights the funder doesn’t demand.

  15. Posted May 11, 2017 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    No, it should not.Don’t need a page to say that.

  16. Anonymous
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Any kind of so-called ‘intellectual property’ is a rich people’s scam to extort even more money from the poor. Patents, as well as copyright, do not do anything good for the public.

    • KD33
      Posted May 12, 2017 at 12:15 am | Permalink

      Your comment is quite ironic. The main reason patents exist is so that great ideas produced by people (or small companies) with little means can’t be stolen by big powerful entities, so preventing monopoly. The system is not perfect, but its intent plays out in the real world every day. You might want to look into it more before you harden your opinion.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 12, 2017 at 4:04 am | Permalink

        Whereas what really happens is the big mega-rich company fetches some overly-broad patent out of its arsenal, lines up its ranks of lawyers, and squashes the little company (which can’t afford a protracted legal fight) or intimidates it into ‘settling’ and walking away, thus maintaining Big Company’s monopoly.

        No need to ‘steal’ it when you can make them hand it over ‘legally’.


    • Posted May 12, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      The public often forgets that people who create books, inventions and other intellectual products also have families to feed and mortgages to pay.

      • Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        The public is just now learning that factory workers whose jobs have been automated have families to feed and mortgages to pay. A few are realizing that Walmart’s efficiency-of-scale is peanuts compared to the massive automation of Amazon, and that what few Walmart-type retail jobs remain are going away soon.

        But, don’t worry. Very soon, now, all the driving jobs are going to be automated out of existence, and then it’ll be clear that everybody has families to feed and mortgages to pay, and that there aren’t enough jobs to go around.

        It should be obvious that any solution to this societal problem that secures food and housing for everybody who’s currently or soon will be unemployable will provide just as well for those who create intellectual so-called “property.”

        …besides, you forget that it’s not authors and inventors who make money off of books and inventions; it’s publishers and lawyers who make money off of copyrights and patents. The authors and inventors, with rare exceptions calculated to promote the illusion of a winnable lottery, have been even more screwed than the steelworkers and for much longer.




        • Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

          Where I live, when a textbook is published, both author and publisher get peanuts because students photocopy the book. If the public thinks that authorship, like metalworking, can become automatic, I can only wish them good luck.

          • Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

            …and, again again, Detroit steelworkers are getting less than peanuts. Soon, they’ll be joined by most professional drivers. They’ve already been joined by huge swaths of the retail industry — with many more on their heels as online retailing continues to explode. Do all of them deserve to starve to death, and is it in the best interests of authors to settle for peanuts because the robots haven’t come for them yet?

            The fundamental problem is the Puritan work ethic that ties not merely one’s value as an human being but one’s very right to exist to the work one does. But how’s that supposed to work when there’s no work for most people to do?

            I’d also challenge your inherent implication that we need all those new textbooks. Up through undergraduate degrees, there’s damned little being taught that’s in any meaningful way novel such that generations-old textbooks wouldn’t do just fine. A physics textbook from the ’50s will cover almost everything that’s taught in non-majors classes; a geometry textbook from ancient Greece will cover almost everything non-math-majors ever learn about that subject.

            And with online distributed courses from the elite universities putting their texts out there free for anybody…why should anybody waste their resources reduplicating that effort?




            • Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

              In biology, it is different.
              I have no problem replacing printed textbooks with educational sites. I have one myself. And while we have unsolved grave crimes, I wouldn’t send police against those who photocopy my textbook and so earn by stealing my intellectual work. I just oppose, for the record, the logic according to which those who steal my work are in the right and I am in the wrong for demanding to be paid for my work.

              I disagree with you about loss of jobs to automation. This fear has been with us ever since the Industrial Revolution. I do not think the Luddites were right back then, and I do not agree with you now. I think I have some idea what caused the heavy unemployment in my country. I have not researched what caused it in the USA, but I see no reason to think that now, for 1st time ever in history, it is technological progress. Anyway, I do not see a connection between the problem I pointed to, i.e. intellectual theft, and the problems of American working class. If you tell an unemployed American that he should think of starving Africans, he will not be delighted.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted May 16, 2017 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

                I would not argue that anyone photocopying your textbook is ‘in the right’ or that you are ‘in the wrong’ for wanting to be paid. It’s more a matter of what is reasonable.

                The problem arises with (some) publishers who charge exorbitant prices and probably underpay their authors.

                Part of the claimed justification for this is the cost of printing and distributing thousands of textbooks, many of which may remain unsold – ‘overhead costs’ in other words. It should be possible for modern technology to avoid this – ‘print-on-demand’ for example, or distributing PDF’s (if they can be protected against unauthorised copying – a whole other issue) – should hopefully reduce the cost of a textbook while permitting the author to receive a much greater percentage of sale price. (And also make it much more affordable for students so they are not tempted to go to the considerable effort of photocopying large chunks of it).


              • Posted May 19, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

                I just oppose, for the record, the logic according to which those who steal my work are in the right and I am in the wrong for demanding to be paid for my work.

                That is, at least in some significant form, a distortion of my position.

                I am instead arguing that the current system is broken, and that copyright is not a suitable mechanism for ensuring that authors (and others) can afford to maintain a suitable standard of living.

                I am most emphatically not arguing that you should stop authoring; nor am I arguing that you should starve for the privilege of authoring. I’m instead arguing that the current method of accounting that compensates you for authoring is fundamentally broken — and broken in a way that actually severely underpays you.

                I see no reason to think that now, for 1st time ever in history, it is technological progress.

                Then you are desperately uninformed about the current state of the global economy.

                Indeed, you can’t even turn on the TV or read a news article today without encountering somebody citing the statistic that a mere 15% or so of American manufacturing jobs were lost to international outsourcing, with the entire remainder lost to automation.

                Nor should this even remotely be a remarkable claim. Look at historical pictures of automobile assembly lines; every ten feet or so there’s a welder or a painter or some other person doing something. Compare with a similar modern picture, and you’ll see maybe half a dozen people on the entire floor.

                I myself have been part of this general process. Back in the ’90s, a company I still consult with had an entire floor in its headquarters with a few dozen accountants, plus at least one and often two or more accountants at each of its dozens of locations. Then I and others started writing reports that helped so-and-so who was overwhelmed with the week-long task of crafting it — and the versions I created ran in seconds. Lather, rinse, repeat…and now that same company has three people left at headquarters, and a single remote accountant is typically responsible for at least a few locations. I personally expect the remote accountants to vanish entirely in the coming years. This company has been good about letting regular attrition reduce headcount…but those are all jobs lost forever, with the salaries largely going instead to boost corporate profits.

                And, again. Consider the case of professional drivers. What job, exactly, do you expect those tens of millions to do when all taxis and long-haul truckers get replaced by robots?

                I’m serious about that last question. I’ve yet to get an answer from anybody about it. And, yet, it’s inevitably going to happen soon, as a robot driver is several times more profitable than any human. The robot can drive all day and night, not just 8 hours; its safety far surpasses those of humans, meaning much less insurance risk and therefore cost; and, though there’s an upfront capital expense…well, capital is tax-deductible, and there’s literally zero to pay in salaries, health insurance, retirement benefits, or payroll taxes. The first company to make it to market with robot drivers will eat the lunch of the human-dependent competition — they’ll charge half as much as the competition while more than doubling profits.




          • Posted May 16, 2017 at 12:55 am | Permalink

            Given the exorbitant price of most textbooks, this is comprehensible. Many of them are actually coffee-table books, which is ridiculous. How can you lug them around?

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:29 am | Permalink

              I would guess many of the students are just copying a few pages of the most relevant section (which is possibly even legal under fair-use provisions). Why should they be required to buy an expensive textbook 90 per cent of which is never going to be mentioned in the course?

              (This all depends, of course, on how well the lecturer has considered the costs to students before specifying textbooks. Some do, some don’t seem to care. From a student’s point of view, an expensive prescribed textbook is a form of extortion – you have to buy it to pass the course. If the whole book is relevant and useful and not exorbitantly priced, then it may be worth buying. If not, then they’d rather keep their money.)


        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 15, 2017 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

          Most emphatically agree with you on that, Ben.


  17. Adam M.
    Posted May 12, 2017 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    I think most research discoveries, including CRISP, require substantial innovation to develop into a complete, marketable product, and if a private entity wants to do that work (with their own money) and patent the innovations, they should be able to. But the underlying publicly funded research should not be privately monopolized.

    If the discovery is already so close to a finished product that a private entity wouldn’t need to add much, then there’s not much reason why they should have a claim to monopolizing the whole thing. Even so, if there’s a need, somebody should be able to make money filling it – not as easily as if they had a monopoly, but hey, that’s business as usual!

  18. Posted May 12, 2017 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    I’m sure some of you can address the following question. I have read that much (even most) medical research is funded publicly, by governments and universities, and then drug companies take over the results and patents, do the marketing (which someone here pointed out is not a negligible process, which I did not know) and rake in the profits. To what degree is this assertion true?

    Could not ideas like this go into something like a Creative Commons?

    In the current point, it does seem that Doudna/Chapentier/UC are getting the shaft from Broad/Lander. I wonder if the resulting controversy is not one of the reasons no one has received The Prize for this yet.

  19. Posted May 12, 2017 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    The argument that publicly funded research should not enrich its practitioners through self-serving patents seems undeniable.

    However, boring old concepts such as logic and morality may not pertain here.

    Maybe the time has come to rewrite employment contracts to make clear that taxpayer-supported research is taxpayer property.

    And I wonder how all this would would pan out re another potential money-spinning area for academics – book publishing.

  20. peepuk
    Posted May 12, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Like Einstein (maybe) said “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”. Stealing ideas is the driving force behind progress.

    Patents are monopolies and hinder progress.

    Current patents are valid for 20 years, much, much too long.

  21. Posted May 12, 2017 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    IMO, some of this could be done by better “policing” of the science-technology distinction on the part of patent applications. The former is a way the world works discovery; the latter is a way to change the world (or prevent change). These are very different, and if one is to have intellectual property rights, they can only apply to the latter.

    Moreover, I would wonder: does the US have the equivalent of “Crown Copyright” and the like?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 13, 2017 at 3:38 am | Permalink

      ‘Crown Copyright’ does not necessarily mean the data is restricted.

      Our New Zealand government mapping service LINZ has Crown Copyright on all its publications BUT all its large-scale maps are free for download and re-use under a Creative Commons licence (which I think is quite incredibly public-spirited of them). I suppose the rationale is that the public has paid for the mapping already?

      In fact it used to be that if you sent them a portable hard drive and a prepaid return envelope they would load the maps of your choice onto it for free. I don’t know if they still do, broadband may have made that obsolete.


  22. Posted May 12, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    At my public university, patents of faculty members are counted as a proof of their good academic performance together with published scientific articles and textbooks.

    I cannot give you more details, because I have never tried to patent anything and have no intention to. A colleague of mine made a PhD on some lectin and patented it, or maybe the method to purify it. He kept bragging about his patent, but nobody else was really interested in the lectin.

  23. Posted May 13, 2017 at 8:49 pm | Permalink


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