If you are a scientist at an American research university like mine, you know what to do if you think you've hit on some technique or bit of knowledge that might have commercial potential. You go online to the university's technology transfer office, download an invention and technology disclosure form, and fill in the details. You have to do that because all such intellectual property (IP) discovered by this university's employees belongs to the university. If the local bureaucrats think there's something in it, they will file a provisional patent and, after formally offering it to any government agency that funded the research - which usually declines - they will start hawking the IP about to see if any entrepreneurs or companies want to license it. Priority in your IP is protected at this stage, and you can now go ahead and publish if you wish, but eventually you may proceed to a full (or utility) patent, where property rights are wrapped up more securely, and, while IP lawyers make fortunes from litigation about who in fact owns the property, basically the matter is now in the domain of formal law. If the university does manage to license the IP, you will get perhaps 35 per cent of the royalty stream. Or, if that's not enough for you, you can cut yourself free from academia and take your chances with the venture capitalists as an independent entrepreneur.
LRB 6 March 2003 | PDF Download