Many of our readers understand how a sound patent system can advance the public good. The US patent system, for example, is based on a social compact between inventors and the public in which inventors are asked to teach the world their secrets in exchange for a limited monopoly on the invention. For a few years, the inventors can control the rights to what they have invented, and then the patent expires, making it available to all. Meanwhile, by teaching how to practice the invention, knowledge is advanced and everyone’s boat is lifted. Take away the respect for intellectual property rights inherent in the patent system, and inventors would be more likely to protect their invention through secrecy, limiting the advance of knowledge and taking us a step back toward the so-called Dark Ages when much practical knowledge was kept secret in the minds of a few masters and guilds. Chances are you already understand that.

Interestingly, even for those who do not want to profit from their inventions but wish to turn them over to the public, patents can still be useful tools to advance the public good. This is true when there is a need to protect and maintain the quality of the invention for the public good. A great example of this principle comes from the story behind the foundation of one of the world’s most successful technology transfer organizations, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, known as WARF. Here is an excerpt from the history of the founding of WARF:

WARF’s creation traces back to UW-Madison biochemistry professor Harry Steenbock, who demonstrated in late 1923 that irradiation with ultraviolet light increased the vitamin D content of foods and other materials. Steenbock knew his invention held the potential to eliminate rickets, a crippling bone disease of children caused by vitamin D deficiency. He also knew that without proper management his advance might never reach this potential.

Thirty years earlier, one of Steenbock’s predecessors in the biochemistry department, Stephen Babcock, developed a novel test for determining the butter fat content of milk. Babcock consciously chose not to patent the advance, instead giving it “freely to the world.”

But Babcock quickly learned that without patent protection he had no way to control the accuracy and reliability of the “Babcock tests” developed by companies. In the rush to meet the demands of dairies clamoring for the test, many manufacturers produced sub-standard testing equipment and supplies, resulting in Babcock tests that often failed to work. The situation eventually grew so serious that state legislators had to intervene with regulations for standardizing the test. Although the invention was eventually accepted worldwide, Babcock reportedly regretted his decision not to patent the technique.

Determined not to repeat Babcock’s experience, Steenbock moved quickly to file a patent application with $300 of his own money when he discovered that irradiating rodent chow with ultraviolet light cured rickets in laboratory rats. Soon afterward, Steenbock was approached by the Quaker Oats Company, which offered him a deal worth nearly one-million dollars for the exclusive rights to his invention.

But rather than sell his discovery to a commercial concern for his own profit, Steenbock strongly believed that any monetary gains resulting from his work should return to the UW-Madison to support scientific research.

Steenbock went on to form WARF to provide a means for patents from the university to benefit the university and further advance the public good. Today revenues from the patents coming from the University of Wisconsin provide many millions of dollars to advance research in many areas, further raising the water level in the sea of knowledge and further advancing the public good.

By protecting a health care invention with a patent, Steenbock was able to ensure that the invention was applied properly and used to advance health appropriately. The control that the patent provided was critical for the success of the technology that went on to advance the quality of life of people all over the globe.

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