Yale President Richard Levin returned to his alma mater, Stanford University, early this week to lead a meeting of the National Academy of the Sciences’ committee on Intellectual Property Rights.
The meeting, which took place Tuesday, followed on the heels of a major conference on intellectual property rights in Washington, D.C. that Levin co-chaired one year ago.
At last year’s well-publicized meeting, attendees drew up recommendations for the U.S. Patent Office. The recommendations mainly pertained to patents in the area of gene research and Internet business methods. Several months later, the U.S. Patent Office made several key policy changes as a result.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first formal follow-up to last year’s conference. Levin said attendees evaluated the changes made by the patent office. He added there are still too many patents being granted.
Discussion focused on the patenting of genetics research and business methods. In both areas, Levin said too much patenting can be dangerous, because it may discourage a wide range of people from making important contributions.
“There is a concern that patents in genetics and genomics are perhaps inhibiting research,” Levin said.
Attendees discussed concerns that online companies are patenting practices that are unoriginal business methods, such as priceline.com’s use of the Dutch auction or reverse bidding.
“People are patenting ideas that aren’t proprietary or original,” Levin said.
But patents do serve an important purpose. Without such protection, Levin said people would have little incentive to innovate.
“You need to be able to say ‘this is mine’ or everyone would copy, and you wouldn’t be able to earn returns,” he said.
Levin’s interest in intellectual property peaked before he became president of Yale. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, he studied the way intellectual property rights affect the economy. About three years ago, Levin was appointed to the National Academy of the Sciences. Levin said his past research made him a “natural choice” to lead the Academy’s effort to reform intellectual property right policy.
After becoming University president, Levin said he has tried to focus his efforts primarily on Yale. But he still holds outside posts. He is an economic consultant for Major League Baseball and is a board member of the Hewlett Foundation.