Constitutional Inventors, First-Possession, and the Confusion of Bayh-Dole

Property law courses generally begin with the concept of first-possession as an originator of property rights. In patent law, the first-possession principle leads to a rule that potential patent rights are owned by the inventors unless and until they are assigned to another entity. See Crown Die & Tool Co. v. Nye Tool & Machine Works, 261 U.S. 24, 35-37 (1923). The legal basis for inventor rights is derived from constitutional principles that give Congress power to enact patent laws that grant exclusive rights "to inventors." US Constitution, Article I, § 8, cl. 8.

In Stanford v. Roche, Both Stanford and the US Government argue that that the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 alters this original formula in the special case where an invention was either "conceived or first actually reduced to practice" with the use of US federal funding received by a university, non-profit, or small business. In that situation, the Bayh-Dole Act suggests that the funded-entity, the "contractor", automatically holds patent rights with a right to "elect to retain title to any subject invention." 35 U.S.C. § 202(a). If the contractor decides not to retain title, then, the funding federal agency "may receive title" or "may … grant requests for retention of rights by the inventor." 35 U.S.C. § 202(d). The Bayh-Dole Act includes a comparative-law clause making its provisions superior to those found in any other Act. "This chapter shall take precedence over any other Act which would require a disposition of rights in subject inventions of small business firms or nonprofit organizations contractors in a manner that is inconsistent with this chapter."

The Bayh-Dole language is somewhat confusing when examined through a first-possession framework. Namely, the statute indicates that the university might "retain title" and also that inventors can request "retention of rights." It is unclear from these provisions whether it is the university or the inventor that first holds rights. The US Constitution helps break this seeming conflict by focusing on inventors as the original recipient of rights. With this Constitutional backstop, there is no way that the university can be the original rights-holder. Rather, that designation must remain with the inventors.

This result may be important for the Stanford v. Roche case that was recently granted a writ of certiorari. Under a Constitutionally limited Bayh-Dole Act, Stanford cannot automatically claim first-possession rights to every invention & first reduction-to-practice that was materially supported by federal funding obtained by Stanford. At most, the Bayh-Dole law requires a transfer of rights from the inventor to the university. In the property framework, the question then focuses on the timing of the Bayh-Dole transfer (is it immediate or does it only occur upon the university's election of rights?) and on its impact on a prior transfer of patent rights to a third party.

Supreme Court to hear Bayh-Dole Patent Ownership Dispute: Stanford v. Roche

Bd. of Trustees of Leland Stanford Jr. University v. Roche Molecular Systems, 09-1159 (Supreme Court 2010)

The Supreme Court has granted Stanford's petition for a writ of certiorari in Stanford v. Roche on an issue of patent ownership. Although the case may turn on federal patent law statutes, it looks substantially like derivative title issues considered in the law of property. The rule of derivative title generally bars a property owner from transferring rights greater than his own. One exception to the rule of derivative title is that, in certain situations, a bona fide purchaser can take title free of prior claims to the property.

The patents in this case involve methods for using PCR techniques to measure HIV concentration in blood plasma. Stanford scientists first created the invention while subject to a contractual duty to assign any inventions to Stanford. After agreeing to assign rights, but prior to the invention, one of the inventors (Holodniy) assigned his rights in his future inventions to Cetus (who later became Roche). Rather than a promise-to-assign, the assignment to Roche was an actual assignment of future inventions. Thus, on the contracts, Holodniy first promised-to-assign rights to Stanford but first actually-assigned rights to Cetus. Stanford later filed for patent protection and then demanded a royalty from Roche. The Federal Circuit held that Roche could not be liable for infringement because it held ownership rights based on the Holodniy assignment.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Stanford has argued that its receipt of federal funding for the research somehow results in a superior claim to title. Stanford framed the question as follows:

Whether a federal contractor university's statutory right under the Bayh-Dole Act, 35 U.S.C. §§ 200-212, in inventions arising from federally funded research can be terminated unilaterally by an individual inventor through a separate agreement purporting to assign the inventor's rights to a third party.

The US Department of Justice filed a brief supporting the petition and argues that the Bayh-Dole Act does indeed establish a "framework for determining ownership interests in federally funded inventions." The Government brief argues that the Bayh-Dole Act flips the normal statutory rule that patent rights first vest with the inventor. Instead, in their view, by virtue of receiving federal funding, the university or federal contractor automatically receives title to the invention and then may "elect" to not "retain title." Under that interpretation of the law, Stanford retains full title because it received federal funding for the research and elected to pursue patent protection. The Government frames the question as follows:

Whether an inventor who is employed by a [federal] contractor that elects to retain rights in an invention may defeat the contractor's right to retain title under the Bayh-Dole Act by contractually assigning his putative rights in the invention to a third party.

The Federal Circuit rejected these questions – holding instead that the Bayh-Dole Act was not designed to automatically void contractual transfers made by an inventor simply because the research received federal funded.

In addition to the Government Brief, additional petitions-stage briefs were filed by a number of universities and university-controlled organizations that all supported the petition.

Comment: The cause of Stanford's plight is the University's failure to negotiate a tight assignment agreement with its researchers and scientists. If it has not done so yet, Stanford could fix the issue by forcing its students and employees to agree to a new assignment agreement. Thus, this particular issue is solved by contract law. A real ongoing question that the Supreme Court should focus-on with this decision involves the rights of third-party inventors who are not under any contractual duty to assign rights to a university or federal contractor. Does that third party retain rights when the University can show that the invention process was at last partially federally funded. This issue arises in collaborative projects where the work of a subset of inventors receives federal funding.