Academic Patenting in Europe: A Reassessment of
Evidence and Research Practices
Francesco Lissoni, GREThA
Université Bordeaux IV & CRIOS
Università Bocconi, Milano
: Francesco Lissoni, GREThA
UMR CNRS 5113, Université Montesquieu
Bordeaux IV, av.
Léon Duguit, 33608 Pessac cedex, France.
universities and public research organizations (PROs) contribute substantially to their countries’
overall inventive activity, but
are far from being exclusive owners of the related intellectual property.
usiness companies and, to a lesser extent, individ
appear to play a major, sometime dominant role.
This special issue offers a selection of papers addressing issues of measurement, commercialization, and
ownership of such academic patents in Europe.
Measuring the extent of the phenomenon
entification of the academic inventors, a data mining operation that imposes technical as well as
procedural challenges for social scientists.
he heterogeneity of ownership models poses the question of
whether ownership is related to the patents’ quality
and/or successful commercialization. Further
questions concern the identity and business models of firms holding academic patents in their portfolios,
and the economic and legal factors that explain a university’s or PRO’s choice of whether to maintain the
intellectual property of its staff’s inventions. The papers in this special issue discuss these
data collected following a joint methodology, made available to readers for use and extension.
: academic patenting, inv
entor data, intellectual property, APE
: I23, O31, O34
activities of the APE
INV Programme has been provided by several member organizations of the
European Science Foundation (ESF) and by the Univers
ity of Strasbourg). The ESF’s Humanities and Social Sciences
Unit has provided continuous assistance and showed great patience to me. The APE
INV Chair was hosted by KITES
Bocconi, and could have not accomplished its tasks without the assista
nce of Michele Pezzoni (APE
External Coordinator), Monica Coffano, and Sabrina Miraglino. The Department of Informatics, Systems and
Communication (DISCo) of the University of Milano
Bicocca kindly agreed to host the project’s data server, which was
naged by Lucio Leone, under Andrea Maurino’s direction. Members of the APE
INV Steering Committee have both
provided scientific advice and managerial help at different stages of the programme. The APE
INV workshops and final
conference were made possible b
y the contribution of too many people to be all named here (for a complete list:
). Gianluca Tarasconi provided technical advice, moral support, and
cheeky humour throughout the project and beyond.
This special issue was made possible Susan Lees’ brilliant editing
and handling of the refereeing process, and by editor
chief Mark Lore
nzen’s patience and guidance. No less than 30
referees contributed to select and improve the papers, with remarkable timeliness.
Academic Patenting in Europe (APE) is a research theme, the name of a programme funded by the
European Science Foundation (
ESF), as well as a policy issue. As a research theme, it is now about 10 year
old, and a number of surveys exist, which can provide the reader with a complete overview of progress so
far (Geuna and Rossi, 2011; Lissoni, 2012 and 2013). This Introduction wi
ll focus on pointing out a number
of methodological issues that emerged during this decade, justifying the implementation of a dedicated
funded by the European Science Foundation
, and illustrate a number of substantial
outcomes of this p
rogramme. The Introduction will also discuss two sets of policy issues: On the one hand,
universities’ handling of their staff’s inventions, and on the other, the economics of research based on large
data archives, with special emphasis on the problem of d
As a research theme, APE originates in the early 2000s, after the appearance of several studies
documenting the impressive growth of patent filings by US universities throughout the 1980s and early
1990s. Such growth stood in contrast with t
he (apparently) near
zero figures of most European
countries. At a time when European policy
making on S&T was still dominated by the
Green Paper on
of 1995 and the “European Paradox” paradigm (EC, 1995; Dosi et al., 2006), the contrast was
uickly seized as a piece of evidence on European universities’ lack of engagement in technology transfer
activities. Much attention was then dedicated to propose or produce some European version of the most
celebrated piece of US legislation in the field,
Dole Act of 1980 (Mowery and Sampat, 2005:
Grimaldi et al., 2011).
A number of European researchers in economics and related social sciences, however, decided to
pay attention not only to official statistics, but also to also history and instituti
ons. They noticed that
universities’ IP dealings date back to the early 20
century, when a number of not
started diffusing IP awareness and expertise among university administrators (A
pple, 1989; Mowery and
Sampat, 2001; Mowery et al., 2002; George, 2005). And that such a long history combined with the
ous status of both private and public US universities, which allowed them to dispose of their
financial assets and negotiate IP rights with both their faculty and sponsors (Geiger 1986, 1993, and 2004
On the contrary, while European academics had been patenting, at the individual level, throughout the late
19th and early 20th century (Guagnini, 2011; Becker, 2012;
2012), their universities abstained for
long from get
ting involved, for two reasons. First, several countries’ IP legislation had been for long
characterized by the “professor’s privilege”, a norm that exempts academic personnel from the duty to
disclose and relinquish their inventions to their employers (
Lissoni et al., 2009; von Proff et al., 2012;
Damsgaard and Thursby, 2013). Second, European universities never e
njoyed the same degree of financial
and managerial autonomy of their US counterparts (Ben
; Clark, 1993
; Estermann, 2009
Therefore, they had neither the incentives nor the administrative tools and skills necessary to take title of
and commercialize their professors’ inventions. The latter were th
en tacitly encouraged to deal personally
with IP matters, either patenting in their own name or trading their IP to business companies in exchange
These historical observations had two consequences. At the data collection level, they led
researchers on APE to adopt a definition of “academic patent” based on the inventor’s identity, that is to
classify as academic not only the patents owned by universities, but also those authored by academic
scientists. These researchers engaged in h
eroic, but uncoordinated and often duplicative data
efforts to assemble information on both inventors and individual academics. Their results revealed the
extent of a phenomenon until then misunderstood, and made once and forever clear that, at leas
t in terms
of relative contribution to domestic patenting, no gap, or a very limited gap existed between academic
patenting in Europe and in the US. The papers presented in this special issue confirm all the results
obtained by this early literature and ex
tend them in space (by adding new countries to the list for which
evidence is available) and in time (by producing, in a few cases, the first reliable time series data, which are
necessary to spot any trend in the phenomenon).
This change of perspective al
so led to the emergence of both a new set of research
questions, and of a new awareness of the technical and organizational challenges posed by
based data mining. It is these questions and challenges that APE
INV, the programme
funded by the Europ
ean Science Foundation, decided to take up.
The programme is a Database
Harmonization project (
), whose objectives can be summarized as
follows: to share expertise and methods f
or name disambiguation (
entity resolution), by borrowing the
necessary techniques from information technology and adapting them to patent documents;
to produce a number of open access datasets for APE research purposes, namely:
an inventor database, co
mprising all inventors (academic and non
academic), listed on EPO patents
from 1978 onward;
a collection of country datasets on academic patents, produced with a common methodology and
to encourage data sharing and coordination of dat
mining efforts, in order to avoid wasteful
duplications and the propagation of ill
informed research results, based on obsolete or amateurish data
mining techniques (on bias due to poor quality inventor data, see Raffo and Lhuillery, 2009
Objective 2 was met by organizing the NameGame workshop series, with multidisciplinary contributions
from both social scientists and IT scholars, whose papers or presentations can be downloaded from the
All together, these contributions form a state
art set of methodologies, to which
one may wish to add Lai et al.’s (2011
) application to USPTO data.
As for the datasets produced to meet objective 1, they
also available from the APE
INV website. The
importance of inventor data goes well beyond their application to the identification of academic patents, as
widely used for research on the geography of innovation and social networks (survey by Moreno
and Miguelez, 2012
). As for the academic patent country datasets (wh
ich we can provide only in
anonymized form, for privacy reasons), they are used by papers in this special issue, but all authors
encourage their further use both for reproducing and extending their results.
The papers presented in this special issue can
be read from different angles. Taken together, they
offer a cross
country view of the APE phenomenon, with special emphasis on the issue of ownership of
academic inventions, and its relationship to patent value. Six out of seven papers are country studies
date evidence on Belgium (Flanders), Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Besides
confirming the importance of academics as contributors to each country’s inventive efforts, the studies
document a trend away from the European tradi
tional ownership pattern (academic patents being
assigned, for the largest part, to business companies) towards a more US
like one, with universities
reclaiming exclusive or joint intellectual property of their staff’s inventions. The studies on Belgium (
by Callaert et al.), Germany (
Schoen and Buenstorf)
and Italy (
Lissoni et al.), taken
together, show a convergence of European IP laws and academic institutional structures towards the US
model, most notably through the abolition
of the professor’s privilege (in Germany) and the increasing
autonomy granted to universities (in Italy). Whether this trend should be evaluated positively is open for
discussion. The evidence on Belgium suggests that
owned academic patents rece
forward citations than firm
owned ones, which may imply that universities are good at retaining control of
promising inventions and/or at commercializing them. The same, however, does not apply to Germany, for
the paper by
Schoen and Buensto
rf find that academic patents owned by general universities are less
cited than those invented in the same universities, but assigned to industry (while no difference exists in
the case of technical universities). These results contradict previous studies
on Germany, and are in line
with what recently found by Lissoni and Montobbio (2013
) for universities in France, Italy, Denmark, and
Sweden, and by Sterzi (2012)
for the UK. The case of Belgium, however, seems more in line with that of the
Netherlands. We can then speculate t
hat universities’ experience and flexibility in handling IP issues is at
stake here, with universities having a longer tradition and more autonomy (such as the Flemish and the
Dutch ones) being better positioned to handle IP. This does not exclude within
ountry heterogeneity, with
some universities being in the position to integrate their IP policies in a general strategy for technology
transfer and commercialization, rather than just deciding case by case on whether to reclaim IP ownership.
Finally, it re
mains to be seen to what extent universities may choose to go for patent ownership for
signalling purposes, and whether such a choice, if confirmed, may be influenced by the increasing
pervasiveness of research evaluation exercises conducted by national go
vernments, through their
university and research agencies.
The paper by Giuri et al. goes beyond the use of patent citations in trying to assess universities’
ability in commercializing their staff’s inventions, and investigates the extent of licensing and
creation, as opposed to patent sales. It also compares universities with another important source of
inventions stemming from public funded research, namely Public Research Organizations (PROs). It finds
owned patents are more lik
ely of PRO
owned ones of being licensed, which suggests that
universities may be better at commercializing their staff’s inventions that PROs. But it also finds that
licensing and patent sales are alternatives, with the former being more common in countrie
universities have a higher tendency to reclaim ownership of academic patents, It remains to be assessed
whether the licensing schemes used by universities perform better than sales either in promoting the
application of the academic inventions, and
/or in producing net profits for the university.
Two papers investigate the business
owned academic patents, which until recently had attracted
The paper by
Ljunberg et al. stud
the forward citation rate of Swedish academic patents
d by large companies, and find that it depends on whether the patented inventions are related to the
companies’ core technologies.
The paper by
Lawson investigates the property structure of business
companies holding UK academic patents in their portfolios
, and finds that an unexpected large number of
small companies are indeed university
ups. This challenges the dichotomous distinction
owned academic patents) used until now in the field. Further research is required
assess to what extent the phenomenon is common also in countries that, differently from the UK, have
little or no tradition of universities’ involvement into entrepreneurial ventures.
the paper by
Martinez et al. come back to an issue that has at
tracted considerable attention
in the recent past, namely the relationship between academics’ inventor status and their scientific
productivity. They do so by considering, along with universities, a heterogeneous set of Spanish PROs. Their
y confirm the existing evidence, namely that academic inventorship is associated to high
scientific quality, but also find an exception, which concerns a new generation of research institutes
recently created by the Spanish government with the mission of p
erforming applied research in
collaboration with the private sector.
Future research will have to further investigate the issue of academic patent ownership and its
relationship with commercialization of research results. This ought to be made by paying gr
eat attention to
the institutional arrangements concerning university autonomy and individual universities’ experience and
managerial models. This will require shifting the researchers’ efforts from data collection at the inventor
and patent level towards
investigating universities’ organizational arrangements, financial conditions, and
ties to industry. Yet, data collection on inventors and patent cannot be discontinued, as updating existing
datasets will be necessary to keep monitoring existing trends. In
order to reconcile these two necessities,
time may have come to institutionalise the inventor data collection efforts, with the intervention of
national or international agencies. This brings us to the issue of data sharing as a research model: social and
economic research on innovation is turning into big science, and if policy makers wish to obtain sensible
advice they need to move in the direction of assisting the change. Some encouraging signs in this direction
are available, witness the creation of th
EPO Worldwide Patent Statistical Database and the rapid growth
of its user community (
or the StarMetrics initiative, launched by several US funding agencies for both evaluation and research
In that respect APE
INV is part of a general trend that will
hopefully break the isolation in which most social scientists work when it comes to large scale data
collection, of which inventor data are an important part.
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