Facing challenges at home, U.S. tech transfer system brings innovation success in other nations
The U.S. system that provides intellectual property protection and supports technology transfer may not be perfect, but it remains a model for the rest of the world.
Michael Waring, executive director of Federal Relations for the University of Michigan, says the nation’s patent and licensing system has served the country well for generations. And it will continue to do so ... although a vocal anti-patent faction is attempting to undermine important aspects of the system.
“Our founding framers really got it right when they gave crative people the ability to control their inventions and the incentive to do so,” says Waring, who also is assistant vice president for Advocacy with AUTM. “I find it amazing that people in the 1700s had the foresight to recognize the value of intellectual property, and it’s the reason why we’ve remained on the cutting edge of innovation ever since. Even countries such as China, where the government has taken a more active role in the economy, have not achieved the same level of research productivity or success at moving discoveries from the lab to the marketplace.”
The legal basis for the U.S. patent system stems from the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, which defines the powers of Congress. It states that “Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”i
The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 helped advance these basic principles by recognizing the critical role academic and other researchers play in transforming federal research dollars into breakthrough discoveries. The act allows universities to retain title to inventions arising from campus labs and develop licensing relationships with industry to move discoveries to the marketplace in the form of useful products and services.ii
The envy of the world
The results include lifesaving medicines, improved crops, productivity enhancements and clean technologies that lessen the environmental impact of human endeavors. The scope of these achievements remains the envy of the world, yet Waring says our system faces a number of threats.
The danger in domestic efforts to undermine the U.S. patent system and the Bayh-Dole Act can be seen in the world around us, Waring says, as countries that have moved aggressively to adopt strong patent protections modeled after our own are now outperforming us on some measures. South Korea represents a striking example. As the poorest country in East Asia in the 1960s with a per capita income less than half that of Ghana or Honduras,iii Korea scored a No. 1 ranking in the 2014 Bloomberg Global Innovation Index.iv
Thanks to its adoption of strong patent protections and recognition of the importance of intellectual property protections,v the Bloomberg ranking scored Korea No. 2 in the world in terms of its parent activity and No. 3 in its research and development intensity.
By comparison, the Bloomberg 2014 ranking placed the U.S. in third place overall, following Sweden in second. The U.S. ranked fifth for patent activity and 10th for research and development intensity. The nation’s concentration of researchers ranked 12th.
While these numbers represent a few of the dimensions captured by one ranking, the message remains clear, Waring says. The U.S. cannot afford to rest on its laurels or undermine the very system that has fueled innovation for decades.
“Policymakers need to continue to be reminded that a strong patent and licensing system is the foundation of our innovation economy,” Waring says. “Technology transfer is what is going to create jobs for their children and grandchildren. Our challenge today is to look beyond the immediate interests of specific technology companies and continue to advance through the underlying protections that encourage individual creativity and research productivity.”
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iThe United States Constitution, The U.S. National Archives.
iiBayh-Dole Act, Pub. L. No. 96-517 (Dec. 12, 1980), codified at 35 U.S.C. §§200-12.
iiiChang H-J: The East Asian Development Experience: The Miracle, the Crisis and the Future. Zed Books, 2006.