Open Source Hardware and University Patents

by Melba Kurman

Open Source Hardware and University PatentsWhat would happen if a group of inventors of new circuit boards and machine parts aggressively published detailed descriptions of their inventions? These same inventors would open source the hardware behind their inventions, making publicly available all the schematics, detailed description of needed parts and software, drawings and “board” files – basically all the information anybody would need to identically re-create the product or object.

Next time somebody tried to patent something similar, perhaps borrowing from open sourced designs, a wealth of prior art would appear in the USPTO search, making it impossible for an company, university or individual to claim ownership of the intellectual property. This idea was presented at the first ever Open Hardware Summit recently by John Wilbanks, VP of Science at Creative Commons.

The world of product development and IP management is changing. The Internet has opened up a huge collaborative space, speeding up product development cycles and the rate of prototyping. Patents take too long to get. Lengthy license negotiations are the kiss of death. Open sourced software is already an industry staple and steady source of product improvement. Open source hardware is next. The ground rules of the Bayh Dole were set in place 30 years ago in a dramatically different world. Remember the enormous mobile phone Michael Douglas used in Wall Street? That’s how far things have come in the world of research, invention and product design and development.

Consider the findings of the great Eric Von Hippel who studies user-led innovation and its impact on product development and IP licensing. His book Democratizing Innovation is a must read for anybody who works around IP. Von Hippel’s research reveals that consumers contribute a significant amount of product design innovation that’s then slurped up by companies and re-introduced in their next version of product. Market research, at best, provides a rough guess at what consumers need, but the real meat of product feedback is based in user created prototypes and improvements to their tools (e.g. kiteboards, mountain bikes, surgical tools, pipe fitting).

University researchers work collaboratively, in fact, many federal grants require interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations. The cutting edge platform-type research typical of universities offers an enormous stage on which user communities can build, research and tinker, particularly when university research make the data, software and materials freely available to their colleagues. Given the fact that more and more innovation takes place on a public stage shared by many actors, patents, material transfer agreements (particularly those for a fee) and complicated license “negotiations” do not meet the original goal of the Bayh-Dole Act, which was and still is to “promote the utilization of federally funded invention.”

Many university technology transfer practitioners are already onto this. They wish they could try new things. I’ve had many discussions with intelligent, industry-savvy licensing people who know the current model is creaky and increasingly more antiquated. University faculty researchers are already onto this. They are already voting with their feet by partaking in the IP grey market or open sourcing and publishing their work in order to make sure the world gets to use what they create. Pioneering work is taking place in the areas of humanitarian licensing to promote global health, thanks to the good work of groups such as the Technology Managers for Global Health as well as the Statement of Principles put together and endorsed last year by AUTM and six universities.

Based on my observations as a university technology transfer practitioner at a large research university, here are some of the challenges that technology transfer offices face that prevent them from being more vocal and radical about exploring new technology transfer models.

  • Simple inertia and lack of higher level support. Change is risky and disruptive and will force entirely new ways of thinking about things and staffing tech transfer offices. Many tech transfer offices must please Boards of Trustees and university higher ups; without their support, change is impossible.
  • Misinterpreting Bayh Dole. It’s a common belief that Bayh Dole mandates patenting. This is not true. There’s a lot more leeway than commonly believed (see previous post ).
  • Still wanting to recoup their university’s “investment” in research. Despite the fact that universities claim a hefty 50+% chunk of federal grant money in the form of administrative overhead, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard high-level research administrators claim the university needs to at least try to commercialize the resulting inventions in hopes of making money from them. The university is fed by federal research grants, not the other way around.
  • Trying to do economic development. The majority of university administrators don’t have time to delve into the feasibility of these emerging models so they’re not yet comfortable convincing their regional legislators that not patenting and licensing inventions is not always the best way to spark the creation of university spinoffs. Somebody in the university administration has gotta learn to make a convincing pitch for change and then start doing it.
  • Fear of losing career momentum. I have seen (and have experienced) intense pressure in university tech transfer offices to keep quiet about sub-optimal policies and procedures in order to be loyal to the tech transfer office by “protecting Bayh Dole.” Most university technology transfer practitioners want to protect Bayh Dole in a wonderful way. Wanting to harvest the fruits of federally funded research to create jobs and a high tech economy is a great thing — that’s what drew people to this field in the first place. However, equally great is the freedom to re-evaluate one’s business model so that if necessary, one can course-correct in order to continue to improve. Ironically, universities are based on the idea of promoting “intellectual freedom.” Sadly, university business units who would otherwise prefer to change their methods can’t, in part, because of internal pressure to remain silent about what’s not working. Faculty may enjoy the freedom to speak and to explore innovative ways to improve the world, but academic freedom does not always extend to academic staff in tech transfer units.

In coming posts, I’m going to start digging into possible new university technology transfer models based on the new world of innovation. In the meantime, take a look at some of the emerging products based on open source hardware.

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Melba KurmanMelba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.

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  1. A very interesting post! Open source hardware could have significant implications, in particular when combined with principles for crowdsourcing and open innovation.

    What do you think of doing the same with innovation methodology, as suggested in my blog post http://christianwig.com/blogg/2010/12/open-source-innovation-methodology-%E2%80%93-a-next-natural-step/ ?

  2. Interesting article about open source hardware by ziv bar ilan the Founder of Zoybar.
    http://shareable.net/blog/open-source-hardware

  3. Really insightful, and confirms a lot of suspicions I developed during the course of my research 2 years ago developing a forecast on the future of technology-based economic development and science parks (follow the link). my conclusion was that universities are increasingly falling behind the technology clusters they have spawned, and at some point they may just be left behind by new institutions.

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