By Debby Winters
What is a “patent troll” is a common question as it conjures up all kinds of images and ideas of monsters and overbearing companies. Because there is no universally accepted definition it is sometimes hard to know just what people mean when they use the term. Many people look at a patent troll as a non-practicing entity of a patent that sues for patent infringement, just to make money off the supposed “patent infringer” as a true “patent troll.” If this is your definition then would a university qualify? And are patent trolls always bad? Or are the sometimes good? A lot of people think that a patent troll is always bad, but in addition to being a “pain” to tech companies, patent trolls can also be valuable to tech companies because they foster innovation.
Now to answer the question for whether universities are patent trolls, let’s examine what effect a university has on technology. Universities are non-practicing entities, but they contribute to the overall system because the research they do is important to our economy. The Bayh-Dole legislation gives incentive to universities to protect their inventions, and then to license them to businesses, particularly small businesses, who in exchange pay the university, which funds additional research and development. For this reason universities cannot be considered patent trolls, instead they are the image of what we want to foster. In addition, to many, a university would not be a patent troll because although a non-practicing entity, they do not sue others who are practicing the technology. Is suing practicing entities weakening the patent system? Maybe so but if we take only those that are trying to weaken the patent system for their own perceived advantage as patent trolls then universities certainly would not qualify. Does a weakened system foster or hinder innovation? There is no evidence that a weaker patent system fosters innovation, but there is overwhelming evidence that a strong patent system does foster innovation, and this leads to growth, investment from abroad, and a more prosperous economy. Indeed, weak patent rights virtually guarantee innovation simply won’t happen. Where there are weak patent rights, there is no innovation. Innovation must be the core of growth in the U.S. economy, and a strong functioning patent system is a prerequisite. Discoveries lead to inventions, which lead to new technologies, which lead to the creation of new industries, which leads to the creation of high-paying jobs. None of this is possible without significant investment, which only makes sense if you have secured rights, and that is why a strong patent system is absolutely necessary. If it takes a patent troll to get us there, then so be it!