Invention and Expertise

University IP policy tends to implement a “great man of invention” assumption. This is easy to do, not necessarily intentional, and unforgivable for a research organization of any sophistication.

The “great man of invention” model proposes that a dominant individual (of any gender) invents in some degree of isolation (standing apart from, if not above, ordinary folks with their “ordinary skill in the art”) through dint of genius (or inspiration, or effort, or enlightened luck) and conceives of an invention in sufficiently complete detail that private investment (the inventor’s own, or others’) is motivated to develop, manufacture, and sell the thing. Unfortunately, this does appear to happen. In variations of the model, the inventor stands in (a kind of metonymy or part for the whole) for the team, and serves as its face and its designated beneficiary.

There are all sorts of problems with this conception of inventors and inventions in a research environment. Research is often collective, not isolated. Invention is not necessarily an important research result and certainly doesn’t cede control of research direction or collaborative relationships to any “inventor” as a result. University research in particular is nearly always aligned with and funded by one or more patrons or sponsors. There is always some form of interested party. The inspiration to invent in such circumstances may come about as much by being among others with more than ordinary skill in the art than by rising above them. Finally, the inventive elements of research assets often have social rather than economic claims on them, tied to integrity of reporting and group decision-making rather than the simplistic chains of corporate employment or the simplistic lack of chains for the independent inventor. The great man of invention model is keen to establish itself, and proves tremendously useful–and potentially damaging–to anyone who makes the mistake of adopting it.

One can see the great man of invention model in university royalty sharing schedules that award a significant portion of income to “inventors” but not to anyone else who may have contributed to establishing the invention as part of a valuable technology. One can see this in press pieces about research, where the human interest story focuses on the “inventors” and the potential of “their” technology, entirely omitting the various lab professionals and various administrative and business professionals that have created and captured opportunity. One can further see this in the absence of recognition for everyone involved (including inventors) if the inventions (or more generally, research developments) under management do not make money above costs through licensing. That is, any other way that an invention (or anything else) might prove valuable to a university–does not matter to policy. It’s income from licensing or nothing at all. That’s a great man of invention model.

The great man of invention view of the world assumes some rare conditions: that a single individual (or maybe two working together) can conceive of an invention with complex parts and know each of these in sufficient detail to direct their assembly without expert assistance; that the parts necessary to build such a complex thing that are not themselves inventive are generic or readily available and not controlled by someone else—potentially also an expert–whose cooperation is otherwise required; that the work needed to assemble and test the newly invented thing can be accomplished in a relatively short time by a compact team—no more than the inventor can manage without expert assistance; that the invention needs no strategy or organization to present to possible investors or developers; and finally, that the cost to develop the item and demonstrate its safety, its potential uses, its feature set, and its post-sale support are all within reach of the inventor, or business associates, without requiring experts in finance or marketing.

Research inventions of only a very narrow set can meet these expectations. I’ll assert that most university research inventions are not great man of invention stuff. They are bits and pieces of technology that need access to other bits and pieces, shared among a number of people, arising because some of them were at a meeting or in a bar or camping out when an inventive bit popped out. Besides that, usually a bunch of these need to be stitched together and evaluated and modified and used for a while before anyone starts thinking commercial thoughts, let alone royalties from licensing.

There are university folks that want its IP policy to “work”. Whatever the policy is, it should work. There are university inventors (and non-inventors!) that believe this stuff about great man of invention. There are administrators who believe that policy is policy and should be upheld and enforced until it is changed. And there are auditors, attorneys, compliance officers, and activists that want to make sure that enforcement is not lax, that application is transparent, and that process is followed. That is, there are a lot of folks who actually are willing to turn an invention into a “great man of invention” thing. They do this even if they don’t care at all what happens downstream or in practice. They force the model onto practice. They insist that the primary task is to make it work. Why is this?

First, the model is beguiling. If you are an inventor, it turns you into a celebrity of sorts, and we all know celebrities get privilege. It gives you status to call the shots, to have a financial stake in the success of the product, to be the center of attention. You have become “above line” talent, in line for a share of royalties off the top. It’s hard to turn that down. If you are working with an inventor, well, you are touching solid gold there.

Second, the model is simplifying. It limits an interest in downstream benefits to those that meet the test of being an inventor named on an issued patent–not just any helpful set of hands. There has to be real merit to the reward, and what better way than for the US Patent Office to agree that some individuals were inspired relative to all the others. This reduces uncertainty and work load for lots of people involved. The last thing you need is to have anyone who has ever been associated with the research able to veto an opportunity. And besides all that, it is a lot easier to write a success story about just one or two inventors than to deal with a whole clan of folks mixing and matching their skills and connections as the opportunity arises.

Third, the model makes an argument for the advantage of the individual over that of the group–the research team, the university, the sponsor’s expectations, and the research community. This is the place of the individual relative to authority, to the status quo, to the borg of corporate machinery, and the stale dysfunction of bureaucratic processes. Don’t you just hate the bureaucratic processes? Stoked this way, why wouldn’t the great man of invention be exactly the right person to decide how an invention should be managed? Thinking suddenly very clearly about personal interest, one has the best guide in the world–one’s own self. Clear away those restrictive policies and contractual claims that would hold down the enterprising individual; don’t deny the public its opportunity to benefit personal initiative.

Of course, if you don’t like intellectual property, university administration, technology transfer, or corporate involvement with universities, then the great man of invention model is a good thing to beat on. Conflict of interest, personal greed winning out over public good, private claims holding back innovation, and worse and worse if the university is complicit in this. First, set it up. Then sweep it away with withering criticism. Even critics of patenting have a stake in keeping the model in place so it can take down lots of badness with it when it goes.

With all of this, here’s the thing that really bothers me: the great man of invention model suppresses all sorts of ancillary expertise. This is not just a function of some inventor’s mindset. It works all around. Once the model is there, lots of people–inventors, administrators, investors, and activist-IP-haters all have reasons for wanting it to be the way things are. This comes with the territory, once one starts calling something in research an “invention” rather than merely a “result” or an “artifact”. An invention has inventors–narrowing and grandizing–while a research result may be the product of lots of work, with credit going all around. The author list on the publication is likely longer than the inventor list on the patent. And that photo of the lab, with all those smiles at some picnic, well that’s just feel good compared to being an “inventor.”

In some few cases, the research inventor rises above the rest. But mostly, policy and practice has to do this to make the great man model work by suppressing the role of related expertise. Or more accurately, policy only puts out the preconditions, and those around with a vested interest in gaining an advantage or doing their jobs do the rest.

The great man of invention model is a problem. No question, it can happen. More to it, there are ways to imitate it, or insist on it, and exploit it–making it appear to be the case is as good a thing as it being the case. We need, however, to have room for alternatives. This research universities should be most capable of, and it is incredible that most do not, and do not appear at all ready to consider alternatives. At best, they might pitch an alternative as a replacement for the existing policy, but not that multiple policies might better address research based innovation.

Research based innovation is about how artifacts become tools. We need policy and practices that lets some few folks be those great inventors, but mostly we need policy and practices that encourage research teams to include non-research (and non-university) experts in collaborative forums so that collectively, using various approaches, research becomes relevant, opportunities arise, practices change, and new tools develop user communities, stable technology platforms, and eventually, in some few cases, products.

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