Historically universities used to generate knowledge that was made available to the public at no further cost, as the research was financed by the government, and thus by a country’s tax paying inhabitants. The emergence of private universities and new laws on intellectual property rights changed the common practice, though. While the main activities of universities remain education and academic research that is disseminated through journal publication activity, commercial activities are on the rise in public science. For instance, the U.S. Bayh-Dole Act from 1980 enables universities (and small business) to claim property rights through patent filings even if the underlying research was financed by public money. This trend poses the question whether universities still contribute significantly to the amount of basic science produced in an economy when becoming commercially active. While journal publications are certainly targeting basic research questions, the content of academic patens is not unambiguously of basic nature. If universities would move to more applied research, this could have detrimental effects for total welfare in the economy. While often presumed in academic literature and policy discussions there is little empirical evidence showing that academic patents protect more basic inventions than corporate patents. This study provides new evidence on the basicness of academic patents using professor patents for Germany linked to patent opposition data from the European Patent Office (EPO). Patent oppositions are the most important mechanism by which the validity of patents filed at the EPO can be challenged. We argue that academic patents should be less likely to be subject to validity challenges if they are more basic than corporate patents. Disputes about the validity of intellectual property rights, as patent litigations and patent oppositions, have been interpreted by the scientific literature as a legal mechanism to enhance patent quality and the effectiveness of the patent system and as an indication for competition. In this paper, we follow the latter interpretation. Previous literature has revealed that patents themselves are rather strategic tools for firms than instruments for intellectual property protection. This evidence supports the interpretation of legal disputes over patent validity as an indication for competition in product and technology markets. Basic inventions, which are not immediately directed at a marketable product, are less likely to threaten the current competitive position of companies than more applied inventions as they are less likely to threat other firms’ position in product markets. In our empirical analysis, we find that academic patents are opposed less frequently than a control group of corporate patents. This suggests that academic patents cover rather basic inventions with a low immediate commercial value not threatening current returns of potential patent opposers in the corporate sector. The effect is weaker for academic patents in collaboration with the business sector, which suggests that those patents are evaluated as more applied or threatening by the business sector.

Czarnitzki, Dirk, Katrin Hussinger and Cedric Schneider (2009), Why Challenge the Ivory Tower? New Evidence on the Basicness of Academic Patents, ZEW Discussion Paper No. 09-029, Mannheim, published in: Kyklos. Download


Czarnitzki, Dirk
Hussinger, Katrin
Schneider, Cedric


academic inventors, intellectual property rights, patent oppositions