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At AUTM East, Experts Encourage University Brass to Sway Pending Patent Reform Policy

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WASHINGTON, DC – University leadership concerned about the possible negative impact of proposed US patent reform can influence pending legislation by forming coalitions with same-minded institutions, networking with larger professional organizations, and leveraging university-affiliated government relations personnel, an expert panel said at the Association of University Technology Managers Eastern region meeting, held here last week.
 
In addition, the panel urged university representatives to act soon because the US Senate and House of Representatives may be aiming to vote on the proposed legislation by the end of this month. Furthermore, rumors of a Senate judiciary committee review of the Bayh-Dole Act persist, and legislation that would re-authorize Small Business Innovation Research grant funding will likely be proposed by September.
 
The panelists dispensed their advice during a plenary session at AUTM East entitled “Inside the Beltway: What’s Happening on the Hill and What to Do About It.” In a testament to the mounting importance of patent reform issues, the panel was assembled ad hoc to replace a previously scheduled plenary on technology-transfer privatization that was cancelled for undisclosed reasons.
 
According to panel member Andy Cohn, government and public relations manager for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the turnout for the session — approximately 60 people — was itself a sign that AUTM members are beginning to develop a sense of urgency about patent reform.
 
He said that at the 2004 AUTM general meeting in San Antonio, “there were probably seven people” at a similar session on influencing tech-transfer-related public policy. “So it is encouraging to see a much larger crowd at a regional meeting.”
 
According to Cohn, AUTM members and university tech-transfer officials are for the most part aligned with professional organizations such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Association of American Universities when it comes to patent reform, as many provisions of the Patent Reform Act currently under bi-cameral review can be considered broadly patent-hostile (see BTW, 4/23/2007).
 
For instance, he said, a provision in the bill that would reduce the monetary value of damages awarded to a patent holder by a potential infringer “is just an invitation for companies to infringe on patents. We might as well go to compulsory licensing” if that aspect of the bill is passed, Cohn said.
 
Furthermore, he said, a provision that would increase the period in which a patent can be challenged to the entire life of the patent means that “we can kiss goodbye the 40 or so startup [companies] per year” generated by universities. “No one will invest in startups if there is no certainty in patent protection,” Cohn said.
 
One area, however, in which universities “are very much alone” among groups opposing the pending patent reform is regarding a proposed first-to-file system instead of the current first-to-invent system. This is primarily because universities typically disclose inventions via scientific literature in advance of applying for patents on a technology, which they could use to prove they were first to invent. Under a first-to-file system, this process would be upended.
 
Cohn said that it is essential that university leadership begin networking and collaborating with other concerned sectors to address what can be done about the Patent Reform Act. As an example, he said that representatives from BIO visited WARF last month to discuss patent reform issues, and that WARF is part of a broader, loosely formed coalition comprising technology companies, biotech companies, and university leadership against the legislation.
 
Panelist Brent Del Monte, vice president of government relations for BIO, told audience members that even such a loose coalition of universities can significantly influence political leadership.
 
“It’s a debate-changing event when Congress gets multiple letters from several universities or even select local universities,” Del Monte said. “Congress members are extremely interested in the positions taken by local research universities. Professional organizations such as AUTM help, but it is important that individual members of individual universities come forward.”
 
The panelists agreed that cultivating a relationship with professional organizations and university-affiliated government relations representatives is an imperative step in this process.
 
“Associations can be your eyes and ears, as can government relations representatives at universities” said Toby Smith, associate director of federal relations for AAU.
 

“It’s a debate-changing event when Congress gets multiple letters from several universities or even select local universities.”

Such relationships can help concerned university professionals identify the influential lawmakers in a school’s district.
 
“You should get to know the healthcare or intellectual property person in your local congressman or senator’s office,” Del Monte said. “They need help because of all the issues they need to tackle. This should be a priority for each and every one of you.”
 
Panelist Bill Behn, an IEEE/AAAS congressional fellow serving on the House Science and Technology Committee and Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, said that “it is important to understand that any member of Congress can introduce an issue, and it is important to make regular meetings with the appropriate people.”
 
Behn also suggested several resources that university professional can use such as trade organization “face books,” which contain information on all members of governmental sub-committees; and a congressional research service that “is only available to congressional staff and analysts, but if you get to know the analyst, you might be able to access it.”
 
Panel moderator Jon Soderstrom, president-elect of AUTM and managing director of Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research, said that a take-home message for audience members was to remember that all politics are local. To support this concept, AUTM has posted information on its website regarding how to relate many of the concepts outlined in the Bayh-Dole legislation to local elected officials.
 
“When you do talk to them, make it simple,” Soderstrom said. “Put it into terms that they can understand. You don’t necessarily have to dumb it down, but make it more impactful.”
 
Even university leadership is not immune to ignoring the impact Bayh-Dole has on a school’s livelihood, the panelists said. To remedy this, AAU’s Smith added that his organization “needs AUTM to help make people understand Bayh-Dole. There is a need to explain why it is important to a university, but also why what you do as a TTO official is important to the local district and constituency.”
 
All of these tactics take on even greater importance right now, panelists said, because of the current status of patent reform legislation: A subcommittee on courts, the internet, and IP in the House has passed the bill onto full committee, and Cohn said it is thought that there will be a vote on the bill by the end of the month. Similarly, Senate held a judiciary committee hearing on the bill last week on the same day the AUTM meeting ended, and “there is also talk of getting this done by the end of the term, July 1,” Cohn said.
 
Behn added that legislation responsible for re-authorizing the SBIR program comes around approximately every eight years, and it is expected to be reviewed again by lawmakers in September of this year.
 
Lastly, Soderstrom said that the recent rumor holds strong that a Senate judiciary committee will be holding Bayh-Dole hearings “in the near future.” He declined to provide additional information on this rumor, but calls and e-mails by BTW to Cohn and several other insiders following the meeting confirmed a similar thought, which has been circulating in the university tech-transfer community since at least March (see BTW, 3/12/2007).

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