Stanford University faces off against the pharmaceutical company Roche this week before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case addresses the question of who owns the rights to university research funded by the federal government.
In 1980, Congress granted universities the right to commercialize the patents that result from federally funded research by licensing them to private industry. A number of schools in California have done very well for themselves since then, and the faculty typically gets a cut of the royalty revenue in exchange for assigning their rights.
When a Stanford researcher developed a test to detect the AIDS virus, the university claimed it had exclusive rights to bring the test to market. But drug company Roche disagreed, saying that a Stanford researcher signed over future patent rights to Roche during the early stages of research.
Stanford sued Roche and won in a federal district court in San Francisco. But an appeals court in Washington, D.C. reversed that decision, and Monday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides.
Stanford claims this is about intellectual property rights, not money.
But some law professors disagree.
"Not all university inventions make a lot of money," said UC Davis law professor Peter Lee, "but some do. So there's potentially millions of dollars at stake in the outcome of this case."
Federal law gives universities the patent rights to any invention created in part with federal funds. At issue here is whether a researcher can unilaterally sell those rights to a third party without the university's consent. A ruling is expected by the end of June.