Columns / Resource Management

Letter to the Editor

February 1, 2011
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Dear Editor,

During the first half of the 20th century, the engineering employee enjoyed a stable employment environment, while the latter half of the century enhanced engineers' esteem, in part because of the space program and Silicon Valley. But engineers also began to experience a decline in status and a shift in employment. Harvard University promoted buying new products and research, and companies favored buying and selling one another. An inventor and their invention might be sold, and the inventor might be subsequently terminated as the acquiring company sought to cut expenses.

It is common practice for a company to require employees, as a condition of their employment, to assign all patent rights to the employer. This assignment of rights was fine in the days of stable and continued employment, and long-term benefits. With the current instability of companies, however, this assignment of rights can be grossly unfair to the patentee.

The refusal of an employee or prospective employee to sign over all patents rights can result in dismissal or rejection of the applicant. The individual refusing to assign rights is free to go and be employed elsewhere. But the same employment conditions probably exist elsewhere as well, so the employee is left only with the option of signing if they want to be employed.

Creativity is the cornerstone of a person's ability to successfully patent. Creativity may be stifled if one believes that they will not share in the benefits yielded from the patents (many senior staff members advise against pursuing a patent or new venture). Even if creativity is not stifled, it is grossly unfair to the individual if the company enjoys long-term benefits and the person is eliminated from participating in those benefits. In addition, reorganization under the protection of bankruptcy can eliminate any financial agreement that may have been made to compensate the individual in the long term.

The nation needs patents and patent protection to move ahead. Individuals need to know that their efforts will be rewarded. The common practice of assigning patents needs to be reviewed. It will not be explored by companies without some push from the government.

Many patents never come to fruition. The reward should only relate to gross sales associated with the patent. If the patentee is not satisfied with the financial arrangement, the patentee should be able to invalidate the patent. This would give leverage to the patentee in negotiations.

-Eugene P. Lunghofer



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