Patents and Access

How University Policies Affect Access

The vast majority of university research funding–in many cases more than 75% of all research funding at a university–comes from the federal government, which redistributes funds from taxpayers’ pockets.  Universities once refused to patent their inventions because they thought patents were antithetical to public health and to the collaborative model of academic science. 

Today, seeking ways to commercialize and protect their research, universities frequently patent inventions that they believe might be profitable. In 2001, U.S. based universities were granted more than 3000 U.S. patents. Where medical products are concerned, universities typically sign exclusive licenses with pharmaceutical companies. These exclusive agreements can create monopolies, generating artificially high prices. Allowing competition can lower those prices.

Concerns have been raised about the impact of reforms to current university patenting and licensing practices:

Won’t reforms in this area harm innovation?

Aren’t universities the wrong place to address this issue?

Won’t reforms worsen domestic drug prices?

If universities reform, won’t industry partners refuse to deal with them?

These and similar claims are addressed in our Q&A document. Our student primer also offers an overview of basic issues like how patents and licenses work and why they’ve become an important public health issue.

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