There is a strand of opinion among companies that deal with universities, that the latter (and in particular their technology transfer departments) overvalue their technology; that they are difficult to negotiate with; and that contractual discussions take for ever.
IP Draughts discussed this point earlier this week with a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, who used to work in a university TT department, and now works for a company that in-licenses IP from universities. As this person freely admitted, it was difficult for a university to trust complaints of this kind, when made by a company in the course of negotiations, particularly if, in the next breath, the company demands very wide commercialisation rights that could be viewed as a “land grab”. The company in that situation is not an objective witness.
And yet the accusations persist. They are not just made in the heat of negotiations. They feature in national reports on university technology transfer. They are usually anecdotal rather than being based on solid, statistically-valid data. By repetition, the comments acquire a reputation for accuracy, and an impression of objective truth. But how much substance is there in them?
At one level, it hardly matters whether the accusation has any universal truth, or is just a convenient whinge to lower a university’s commercial expectations. The fact is that the rumour has taken hold in some quarters, and needs to be recognised and addressed. And universities are sometimes their own worst enemies: no matter how good their intentions, a lack of resource in TT offices, and the oddities of the university decision-making process, can conspire to make contract negotiations less commercially-focussed than they would be in a business environment.
Bad impressions can be countered in a number of ways: by providing data to demonstrate that the accusation is false; by acting in a way that is designed to give a positive impression; and by employing the dark arts of public relations. The most productive of these alternatives is to demonstrate that you are easy to deal with. But easiness comes in different forms. An easy manner may help the flow of commercial discussions. Easiness about the substance – the commercial terms on offer – may be appreciated by the licensee, but is it in the university’s best interests? Is there a danger that eagerness-to-please on deal terms may result in the university not getting market value for its valuable IP? Might this be a breach of charity laws? In a European context, could it amount to an unlawful State Aid under EU laws?
This blog has commented before on an initiative that started at the University of Glasgow, and has since been copied by an increasing number of universities, particularly in the UK and Australia. The initiative is called Easy Access IP, and it is designed to make the process of negotiating technology licences with industry as painless and simple as possible. Typically, the licence is free of upfront payments and is either royalty-free or requires the payment of a small royalty on commercialisation. A simple, one-page licence agreement is used, that doesn’t require negotiation.
Advocates of the initiative point to the non-licensing benefits that can result from offering licences on easy-access terms, including PR/reputational, supporting local industry, and demonstrating industrial “impact”. In some cases, easy-access licensing results in increased funding of university research. Cynics may suggest that technology tends to be offered on easy-access terms after it has languished on the shelf for several years, unable to attract buyers on full commercial terms.
The initiative has been running now for about 5 years, and it is a good time to take stock of what it has been achieved. Various organisations in the university sector have clubbed together to commission a study by independent consultants on whether Easy Access IP has been successful. The study has resulted in a report, and the report was published earlier this week. It is worth a read.
Among the points that IP Draughts took from the report (and in his own words):
- Small data. Most of the universities that claim to offer easy-access licences only do so with a small minority of their available technologies (perhaps 10%). Licensing on easy-access terms has been on a relatively small scale. The majority of easy-access licences have been granted by just two universities: Glasgow, where the initiative was born, under the management of Kevin Cullen; and New South Wales, where Kevin now works.
- Soft benefits. There are soft benefits in offering easy-access licences. It demonstrates that you care about being seen to be easy to deal with, and counters the lazy impression that all university support departments are bureaucratic and negative in their approach.
- Not the main issue. Offering easy-access terms does not make a huge difference to the time it takes to get university technology out into the community. In reality, the negotiation of commercial licence terms is not a slow or difficult process, when compared with other factors, such as the difficulty of marketing university technology and finding licensees. It is easy to blame the lawyers but they are not really the problem.
- Uptake by SMEs. The main recipients of easy-access licences are small businesses located near the university. For them, any contractual terms are difficult, because they don’t have much experience of negotiating them, nor much of a budget for obtaining legal advice. A non-trivial proportion of those local-business licensees are start-ups formed by the academic who created the technology. In other words, easy-access licensing is sometimes used as a way of letting the academic commercialise the technology.
- No thanks. Large companies tend not to like easy-access licence terms, because they have their own template licence agreements that they prefer to work with. These are usually more complex than the one-pager that the university offers. Similarly, investors in spin-out companies are not willing to accept the simplified terms of an easy-access licence, and want to include detailed warranties and other provisions to address legal risk.
- Gotcha. At one level, offering easy-access licence terms could be viewed as calling industry’s bluff. You think we are difficult, and we understand that and want to help – here are some very easy terms. Oh, you don’t want easy terms after all? You actually want detailed and complex terms, you just want us to be amenable to those terms.
- Where’s my money? Some other stakeholders dislike easy-access terms. Where university research has been funded by an external agency such as a funding charity, the funder may consider it important to see a financial return from its funding. Offering free licences doesn’t achieve this objective. Similarly, some academic inventors dislike easy-access terms, for the same reason – they want to generate a financial return from industry’s use of their technology.
- Yeah, whatever. Another important stakeholder is the university itself. The technology transfer manager may be a convert to the new religion of easy access licensing, but is the university finance director still following the old theology where TT offices are expected to maximise the financial return from IP commercialisation? Are TT staff still incentivised to maximise income, eg through bonus arrangements? Easy access programmes work best where senior management actively supports the idea of easy-access licensing. In some universities it is difficult to get senior management support for, or interest in, any aspect of technology transfer activities.
Dear reader, what are your thoughts on easy-access licensing? Is it a really important initiative, or a minor diversion? Is it a nice idea, like the Lambert Agreements, that hasn’t really achieved what its advocates hoped?
Finally, a drafting point. At the end of the report is an example of an easy-access licence agreement. Is IP Draughts alone in thinking that the drafting of this agreement is terrible? Perhaps the author wanted to avoid having the agreement written in a “legal” style that might be offputting to some readers. But surely we can do better than this example, which is poorly written by any standard.