There’s much talk in universities about open research and “public benefit,” but university compliance and “commercialization” folks lean heavy on ownership of inventions and their chosen processes for “managing it”.  They don’t admit it publicly, but they put making money from “commercialization” ahead of advancing research-enabled practice.  They want the university to be “open for business”–meaning, sell whatever  research inventions they can get their hands on.  They can’t help it, really; they work with an intellectual property policy that says they can.  And we can’t.  So they do.

Patents can be an expensive shut down to open engagement.  Like the Cone of Silence in the old Get Smart television series,  applying for patents may be required by policy or by contract, but patents don’t often work well for research.  Administrators get this, however, and increasingly are bringing in “business” people with the mandate to turn research into something that they hope makes the university a lot of money.  The only “good” research leads to good business (for the university).  The rest is rot.

“Commercialization” is about as far from immediate university research goals as one can get.  It’s not that we don’t care about how industry uses our work.  Rather, it’s not useful for university administrators to try to put a price on everything researchers solve, discover, cure, invent, or develop.   Worse if the bureaucrats are trying to run things “like a business“.

An owner of a patent has the right to exclude others from practicing anything covered by any claim of the patent.  That means, no making, no using, and no selling.   Not for research, not for personal messing around, and obviously not for anything in a company.  To do any of these things requires permission of the patent owner–usually signing a license.

In taking control of patents away from labs, university licensing offices create huge uncertainty for any early adopting practice community.    Will the university ever license the rights?  If so, will they license to someone nasty?  Will Nasty, Inc. enforce the patent against the practice community?   Will its product, if it ever makes one, be better than what anyone can do for themselves?  Do we have to wait years to find out?

Moreover, licensing offices encourage university inventors not to make things open.  That’s the whole point of the “training” these folks show up to “give” us.   How one can lose commercially valuable patent rights by publishing stuff before filing patent applications.  Well, yes.

Finally, where a licensing office can pull it off, it’s usually an exclusive license.  That means, there’s going to be only one Nasty, Inc. in your future.   No relief there.  Perhaps the company taking the license will go open with the rights, create a standard, or grant a blanket permission to everyone practicing out there–sort of a creative commons “share and share alike” license.  But no, you see, university licensing offices demand “diligence” and that typically means “you gotta pay us for every use”.  So, no standard.  No commons.  No freedom to practice without a deal, and especially, to pay up.

It’s well and good that patent rights might attract private investment in creating new products where otherwise there would be no practice–think pills and medical devices.  But if this idea dominates all other research and management considerations, then it’s not well and good at all.  Indeed, it is very unwell.  But most university policies don’t allow inventors to go any other way.

Imagine–what if inventions stayed with a lab?   That would give a lab aiming to be open the best chance of developing working relationships with other practitioners.  Then it would be up to the lab what “rights” ought to be developed.   If we show you how we’ve done something, should you still have to wait until a university bureaucrat approves your use?   Doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

Perhaps by now you can see how damaging university patent policies can be.  Fixation on “commercial” value forces researchers out of the picture and drives away collaborators.   No matter how diligent folks are to turn research into products, if labs don’t set their own agendas, open stuff simply cannot happen.  Where’s the public good in that?

2 Comments on The Cone of Bother

  1. Kevin Smith says:

    Excellent article. I have noticed the increasing presence of business at universities over the last 25 years or so but I was completely unaware of the impacts that you have described.

    On a related note – I have collected all the recipes described in your blog (and from a couple of other sources) into a single document which I would like to make available through my blog. My intent is to update it as more information becomes available. A lot of the text and pictures are lifted directly from your posts and I would appreciate your permission to use it. You can review it at

    Any editorial comments are welcome

    • admin says:

      Kevin, thanks.

      Open3DP has always had interest in some broader ideals. Barnett has some truly amazing ideas.

      I can’t really see the document. How about emailing a pdf to me. In general, all that we ask is that you give attribution to
      the open3dp and/or the authors on an entry by entry basis (this allows readers to know where the source of the information lies).

      How’s your Mendel coming along?


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