A few weeks ago, administrators at Penn State University did something they believed had never been attempted in American academia: The school put about 70 engineering patents up for auction and tried to sell them to the highest bidder. They weren’t so successful—not many patents sold—but the project has disturbing implications. What if all this intellectual property, based on research done at a public institution, were to end up in the hands of someone less interested in innovation than in hauling companies to court? What if Penn State auctioned its inventions to a greedy patent troll?
It wouldn’t be the first time that an institute of higher learning had partnered up with patent trolls, or mimicked their behavior. Universities and patent trolls have some major traits in common: Both make money off of legal rights; both let other businesses implement ideas and then pinch a portion of the revenue; both purport to bring that money back to those innovators who most deserve it. Looked at from a distance, and with squinted eyes, a school might seem to be a patent troll itself—and that resemblance is growing stronger.