Stanford v. Roche, 563 U. S. ____ (2011)
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that a federally funded contractor does not necessarily own the patent rights to inventions resulting from funded projects. Here, the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University unsuccessfully argued that such rights automatically vest under the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980.
Ownership of patent rights and inchoate pre-filing rights are somewhat confusing because they involve a mixture of federal patent law and state laws of contracts, employment, and trade secrets. Here, the majority led by Chief Justice Roberts has held that US patent rights have always (since 1790) initially vested in “the inventor” and that the non-specific language of the Bayh-Dole Act does nothing to change the original setup.
The Bayh-Dole Act has revolutionized the way that universities look at technology and innovation by allowing research institutions to “elect to retain title” to inventions generated through federal funding. 35 U.S.C. § 202(a). Today, most major research universities hold dozens if not hundreds of patents and have extensive licensing offices. The Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) now boasts more than 3,500 members.
This case involves a Stanford researcher (Mark Holodniy) who was under a prior contractual duty to assign invention rights to Stanford but who actually assigned rights to Cetus. When Stanford sued Roche (Cetus’ successor in interest) for patent infringement, Roche’s defense was that a co-owner could not be held liable for patent infringement. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed with Roche — holding that Holodniy’s duty to assign rights to Stanford did not block him from actually assigning rights to Cetus and that Roche therefore held rights in the invention.
At the Supreme Court, Stanford argued that the contractual rights did not matter and instead that its statutory right to “elect to retain title. . . any invention of the contractor” conceived or reduced to practice under a federally funded agreement gave it precedence over Cetus/Roche. The court rejected Stanford’s argument as both against the tradition of patent law and not in accord with the statute.
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