Universities have turned over hundreds of patents to patent trolls

In recent decades, universities have expanded their efforts to patent academic research. It’s not exactly clear, however, who licenses or buys university patents and how they get used.

In 2007, several universities signed a statement promising to be mindful of public interests when licensing or selling their patents. The signatories, including Stanford, MIT, Harvard and the University of California, agreed that public interests wouldn’t be served by turning over patents to companies who “rely primarily on threats of infringement litigation to generate revenue.” In other words, it was conceded that patents shouldn’t be given away to patent trolls. Unfortunately, not all universities have kept their promise.

Intellectual Ventures (IV), a high-powered patent troll, has made its patent portfolio public — and it contains almost 30,000 active patents. IV is notorious for using these patents, including the truly trivial ones, to sue companies for patent infringement or bully them into paying with litigation threats. But how many of IV’s patents came from universities?

To answer this, I have scraped the names of the original assignees for each of the U.S. patents in the portfolio from patent records (see annotated patents list). The analysis shows that nearly 500 of IV’s patents originally belonged to universities, including state schools (see Figure 1 and university-derived patents list).

Figure 1: Ten universities with the largest number of patents in IV’s portfolio.

Both the University of California and Caltech signed the 2007 statement, yet IV now owns tens of patents from these schools that were filed after 2007. For instance, the IV portfolio includes a Caltech patent filed in 2010 (granted in 2011) and University of California patent filed in 2008 (granted in 2014). Other universities that signed the statement, such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT, did not have patents in the portfolio.

Apart from universities, IV’s portfolio includes nearly 100 patents from the U.S. Navy, as well as patents from weapons manufacturers such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. In addition, some notable computer scientists and software developers are listed as inventors on patents owned by IV, like Danny Hillis and the developer of Linux, Linus Torvalds.

It’s still not clear how many university patents are transferred to patent trolls overall, as many such companies don’t make their portfolios public. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has recently called on universities to pledge not to cooperate with patent trolls. Campaigns like these can help reduce the damages of universities’ aggressive patenting pursuits, which have long ago spiraled out of control.

Data and code for analysis is available on github.

Yarden Katz is a departmental fellow in Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School and a fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He received his PhD in neuroscience from MIT in 2014.