While working on a book chapter on Bayh-Dole and university IP practice, I thought that it might be helpful to put together in one place a description of the sorts of projects I have worked on and continue enjoy being involved with. There are any number of folks around who can help a university licensing office do more of the conventional thing–how to file patents, how to market patents, how to interest venture capitalists, how to draft a tight-fisted licensing agreement, and how to present tight-fisted licensing agreements as happy and easy to industry while selling faculty inventors on the idea of instant wealth and a cool Porsche (like the one in the Research Enterprise banner at Laguna Seca) in their university parking lot… though these days, perhaps it would be a cool Tesla.
One of the great challenges of dealing with IP in a university setting is dealing with the practice of law–both IP and contracting–that has come to dominate policy and practice decisions. While law is a key factor in IP management, the law does not teach one how innovation comes about any more than a football referee can show you how to win a football game by studying the rules and the penalties, and how to get away with stuff. Yes, there is a place for that, but it does not get at the why questions, or the shape of the management choices that can be made. And to have management choices–that is, to use judgment–one has to develop the resources to support those choices well in advance of the choice being made. One can be lost in the mountains and make the “choice” to build a helicopter and fly to safety, but that’s not a choice at all–it’s a hallucination.
I imagine the social and research worlds as a map of towns and cities of practice, lit in some twilight, across which unexpected forces of potential sweep from time to time, and in some outlying region today, or in some huge city tomorrow, there’s a black swan event–something unforeseen, like a huge storm four weeks out in the local weather forecast–that lights up opportunity for some, and ruins investments for others. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this sort of thing in Outliers. The more diverse the activities on the expanse of this map, the greater the chance that when some change sweeps across, there will be someone positioned to act on it, to be there on the ground floor of something new. Some kid messing with a 3d printer, or some physicist futzing with ideas about the wobble of a spinning plate, or an artist who weaves with fiber optics…. University research, too, even (and perhaps especially) when it is off topic and out of the ordinary, is part of that diversity, part of the resilience, something that might get played, as an unexpected instrument, by events.
Shelley (“Mount Blanc“)
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark–now glittering-now, reflecting gloom
Now lending splendor, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters-with a sound but half its own,
Coleridge (“Eolian Harp“)
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
Imagine university research activities as a kind of mind that for all its own intentions is played upon by events that sweep across the map of activity. For that, it is not the purpose that justifies the research, but the recognition of those doing the research to what has become possible, not just from their own doing, but because of what they have been doing, when what happens in the greater world intrudes on their twilight work. It may be war, or famine, or a stock market crash; it may be a new way of communicating or traveling or treating disease. How would we know in advance? So rather than chasing markets, which is fine its way, we also recognize the absence of markets, of the possibilities for action, quite apart from markets. For this, perhaps, a training in something other than, or in addition to STEM is necessary, again, a training that happens well before it could be used. For that, perhaps, a training in art, or music, or romantic poets comes in more handy than proving, say, the congruence of two triangles or learning how to create spam filters.
If you are interested in really getting at how universities could–and perhaps ought–to be changing their IP programs to support better research, scholarship, innovation, and impact–then perhaps you would prefer a less “optimized” discussion that talks emerging practices rather than ubiquitous practice. Not every university can afford to copy what they see at a big research center in Silicon Valley or Boston–and in fact, most are harmed by doing so. There are folks around who can help universities (and their administrators, faculty, students, staff, collaborators, policy makers, legislators)–think new thoughts, build new IP practice programs (and sometimes recover and restore lost IP practice programs). That’s the kind of stuff I do.