Harvard Fears Congress May Not Pass Patent Bill
Harvard officials fear politica maneuvering in Congress many endanger legislation designed to give colleges and universities control over results of federally funded research.
Although the Senate has already passed its version of the measure and the House of Representatives is scheduled to consider the bill during its November "lame duck" session, "Harvard is damned concerned that the differences on the Hill and political obstacles may threaten" the legislation, Parker L. Coddington, director of government relations, said yesterday.
Both meaures would transfer patent rights from the government to universities for discoveries made with federal grant money. The bills also establish a uniform patent policy for all federal agencies with respect for inventions made at universities, non-profit organizations and small businesses that rely on government grants.
However, only the House version extends uniform patent privileges to large businesses. Congressional sources worry that a bitter clash may occur over this difference, despite widespread sentiment in both houses for aid to universities and small businesses.
"If heavyweights like (Sen.) Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.)--ranking Republican in the Senate Judiciary Committee--refuse to compromise on the big business issue, we could have fillibusters, and the whole thing could go right down the tubes," a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer said yesterday.
A House Judiciary Committee aide said yesterday that the House will consider the measure early in November, adding that committee members "are very confident" of passage. He declined to comment on a possible conference committee confrontation with the Senate over the big business issue.
Harvard officials joined several other schools, including Stanford University, the University of California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in lobbying for Congressional approval of this legislation, "commenting and helping to develop the final language of some sections of both bills," Coddington said.
The University "remains neutral" on the debate over the big business provision, he added, saying, "That doesn't affect our interests even indirectly--except as a political roadblock."
Coddington explained that the proposed legislation would provide Harvard with royalties and license fees if patented discoveries are developed into marketable products. "It would not be an enormous amount, but it is always good to bring in 'free money' to finance the efforts of the young investigator," Coddington said.
A Harvard-Industrial Complex
The patent law revisions would also foster a closer relationship between the University and industry because of the opportunity for more commercial investment in Harvard discoveries, Coddington said, adding that the link could "bear all sorts of fruit in the future."
The government now funds approximately two-thirds of Harvard's scientific research through 26 federal agencies. Each agency has a separate patent policy.
Coddington estimated that approximately 20,000 discoveries are "lying fallow" because private industry is hesitant to invest in government-owned patents, to which they cannot obtain exclusive rights.
He added, however, that this problem has not affected research at Harvard, saying, "Our main purpose is not to seek discoveries that are necessarily patentable."
"The changes proposed would especially help us in our administration of patent matters," Stephen H. Atkinson '67, executive secretary of the University committee on patents and copyrights, said yesterday. "With all of the conflicting federal policies we are now working in a maze of bureaucratic detail," he added.
Another fear voiced by sources in the University and on Capitol Hill is that upon returning on November 12 for the added session, the Senate will avoid addressing the patent legislation altogether by concentrating solely on appropriations before adjourning. The 97th session would then have to reintroduce the issue and begin the entire legislative process from scratch.
"There is really nothing we can do except watch," Atkinson said. "The Senate certainly handled the problem well, by carefully considering each part of the proposal independently and not closing out the idea of legislating for large corporations," he added, declining to comment on the House's treatment of the measure.
"A lot of people (in the Senate) were a little disconcerted when the whole bill came down from the House in one big piece after we passed our version so carefully in separate pieces," the Senate Judiciary aide said. The White House has consistently backed the more comprehensive House version.
To Be Continued
In related activity, the Faculty Council last week began discussing whether Harvard should take a more active role in adapting the patents it owns for commercial use, a practice that could yield large financial rewards. The Council will continue the discussion at this week's meeting and at the full Faculty meeting on October 21.
Whatever changes might result from possible Congressional action will not immediately wipe out Harvard's existing patent agreements with individual federal agencies, Coddington said. "We will continue to deal individually with the agencies, and we will renew our agreements as that becomes necessary, taking into account any new laws."
Before 1975, Harvard prohibited researchers from patenting discoveries resulting from federally funded research