Policy ForumIntellectual Property

Racing for academic glory and patents: Lessons from CRISPR

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Science  17 Nov 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6365, pp. 874-876
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2468

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Summary

The much-publicized dispute over patent rights to CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology highlights tensions that have been percolating for almost four decades, since the U.S. Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 invoked patents as a mechanism for promoting commercialization of federally funded research. With the encouragement provided by Bayh-Dole, academic scientists and their research institutions now race in dual competitive domains: the quest for glory in academic research and in the patent sphere. Yet, a robust economic literature (1, 2) argues that races are often socially wasteful; the racing parties expend duplicative resources, in terms of both the research itself and the legal fees spent attempting to acquire patents, all in the pursuit of what may be a modest acceleration of invention. For CRISPR, and future races involving broadly useful technologies for which it may set a precedent, the relationship between these competitive domains needs to be parsed carefully. On the basis of legal maneuvers thus far, it appears that the litigants will try for broad rights; public benefit will depend on courts reining them in and, when broad patents slip through, on updating Bayh-Dole's pro-commercialization safeguards with underused features of the Act.