German dons lose now to gain later

November 17, 2000

German academics could lose the right to patent their intellectual property under proposed regulations. Education minister Edelgard Bulmahn and the education ministers of the 16 states have agreed to transfer the right to patent and exploit academic inventions to their universities.

The institutions would have the right to decide within four months whether or not to apply for a patent. They would have to pay the costs, but would later take two-thirds of any proceeds, with a third going to the inventor.

In German law, university lecturers, not their employers, own their inventions. But they often shy away from patenting ideas because it is bureaucratic and involves financial risk.

Ministers also envisage setting up patenting organisations in universities to market innovations. Mrs Bulmahn pledged that some of the €934 million (£557 million) allocated to universities from the recent auction of UMTS mobile phone licences would be earmarked to help establish them.

The German government is negotiating with European Union states to introduce a "period of grace" for inventions, which would guarantee that inventions already presented in academic journals could still be patented within six months.

Presently, a claim to a patent lapses after publication. Only 4 per cent of the 51,000 patents registered in Germany last year came from university academics. "This is a serious deficit in comparison with other countries. It damages universities and academics," said Mrs Bulmahn.

Juergen Hess, general secretary of the Conference of University Rectors, said the proposal would put academics "in a much better position to negotiate with business". But Hartmut Schiedermair, president of the Association of University Professors, said: "The result will be not more, but fewer, patents from universities."

In the United States, where universities have been able to patent the research results of their academics for the past 20 years, the share of patents from universities doubled in the period between 1991 and 1998.

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