The Path to Public Service at SEAS


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According to a statement published recently by the University, "no patents primarily concerned with therapeutics or public health may be taken out by any member of the University except with the consent of the President and Fellows; nor will such patents be taken out by the University itself except for dedication to the public. . . ." Behind the inauguration of this policy lay the fact of popular ill-will aroused when Harvard's inventor of the "iron lung" made so much money at the expense of the public--or that section of the public unfortunate enough to need the services of his device. It was felt that members of a university corporation, like members of any other type of corporation, should not derive personal gain from inventions made while doing paid research work. Harvard has wisely undertaken to curb faculty patents; but to say that it will take out patents only "for dedication to the public" is not so wise nor so charitable a move as at first it may appear to be.

Any invention in order to be of use to the public must be developed, perfected, and put on the market at a reasonable price. But no sound firm is going to spend money on research and perfection of, say, a new drug, unless it has the protection of a patent on that new drug. Quite possibly a competitor might place on the market a product of inferior quality which would undersell the reputable drug and cause great loss to the company marketing it. And if, because the patent on an invention is "dedicated to the public" no reputable firm dares to develop that invention, the public actually will not gain.

The logical alternative to "public dedication" is that the University should take out patents on whatever inventions may be made and lease the patent rights to individual concerns. With the money derived from such leases the University could then add to its fund for research. Thus the public would benefit from inventions, individual faculty members would not exploit them at the expense of social welfare, and scientific research would be furthered.

Such a system is now in effect at a great many other colleges. McGill has carried on extensive experiments on insulin through this means. The discovery of Vitamin C at the University of Wisconsin has financed further research there. Harvard would do well to follow suit. "Dedication of inventions to the public" sounds like a commendable civic move; actually the public would benefit more if Harvard should hold and lease out the patents on inventions made here.

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