An Empirical Study of University Patent Activity

Brian L. Frye, Christopher J. Ryan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Since 1980, a series of legislative acts and judicial decisions have affected the ownership, scope, and duration of patents. These changes have coincided with historic increases in patent activity among academic institutions.

This article presents an empirical study of how changes to patent policy precipitated responses by academic institutions, using spline regression functions to model their patent activity. We find that academic institutions typically reduced patent activity immediately before changes to the patent system, and increased patent activity immediately afterward. This is especially true among research universities. In other words, academic institutions responded to patent incentives in a strategic manner, consistent with firm behavior, by reacting to the preferences of internal coalitions to capture unrealized economic value in intellectual property. University patent activity, as a response to patent law changes, carries important economic and normative implications. The patent system uses private economic incentives to promote innovation, but academic institutions are charitable organizations intended to promote the public good. This study demonstrates that patent incentives may have encouraged academic institutions to invest in patentable innovation—in ways that potentially limit access to innovation—in order to internalize private economic value.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)51-84
JournalNew York University Journal of Intellectual Property & Entertainment Law
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 1 2017


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