22 nov 2005 - 14:00
Ethical Implications of Patenting Academic Research

It is often said that modern economic progress depends upon the availability of innovative technological knowledge and of qualified personnel. Therefore, centres of education and research are held up as the crux of the “knowledge economy”. It is therefore broadly agreed that at the various educational levels, one must invest in the production of knowledge. Furthermore, it is argued, government subsidies must be supplemented by investment from the private sector. At the same time, the onus is upon universities to capitalise as efficiently as possible on the economic potential opened up by research by giving their researchers adequate incentives, and by enlarging their own research funds. One strategy to this end is to protect academic knowledge as intellectual property by allowing it to be patented. Researchers will then be well-advised to investigate the patentability of their findings, and can turn to specialist centers for help with the process of patenting their discoveries.

During the fourth ethical forum, we discussed the ethical implications of the patenting of academic knowledge. It was first carefully defined, what patents are, to what kind of knowledge they apply, why people find it necessary to establish patents, and in what respects these differ from other forms of protection of intellectual privilege, such as copyright. We considered the key arguments for and against patenting. One argument in favour is that patenting stimulates research. Are there any economic facts which can demonstrate the effectiveness of such incentives?

A second question touches on how in particular a university should proceed with the patenting of knowledge. Modern universities were inspired by Enlightenment ideals by which the open distribution of knowledge, and unselfishness in its pursuit of knowledge were central characteristics. The privatisation and commercialisation of knowledge would seem to conflict with this traditional vision. Are there reasons for giving up the traditional outlook? There are few or no universities who have not chosen to patent discoveries, but how is one to proceed within the frame of the university, once one has obtained a patent protection? Can one pursue a policy of using these protected intellectual rights securing the fruits of knowledge for financially weaker groups, or do circumstances compel the universities to be (almost) exclusively driven by market forces?

The discussion above illuminates one part of the problems which have to do with the relation of the worlds of academia and commerce. There is a reason for confining oneself to an aspect of this problematic relationship. If one were to broaden the scope of inquiry further, one would risk missing the complexity of the subject matter already covered, and be consigned to a far too general and aimless debate.

Programme and downloadable contributions

(click here to download programme)

2 - 3.30 pm : First session

  • Welcome and Introduction on behalf of the University Foundation by Jacques Willems, former rector of the Ghent University, Chairman of the University Foundation, and Eric De Keuleneer, Professor at the ULB, Executive Director of the University Foundation
  • ‘Today’s forum: The key issues’ by Bart Pattyn, Centre for Ethics, KU Leuven, Chairman of the Fourth Ethical Forum (document)
  • ‘Principles and rationale of patent protection’ by Alain Strowel (FUSL and ULg) (document)
  • ‘Can patents be morally justified?’ by Sigrid Sterkx (UGent) (document)
  • ‘Economic evidence: The real effect of incentives’ by Paul Belleflamme (UCL) (document)
  • Questions and discussion

4 - 5.30 pm : Second session

  • ‘Universities ans patents‘ by Gilles Capart (Chairman of the Board, ProTon Europe) (document)
  • ‘Reconciling patent policies and university mission’ by Geertrui Van Overwalle (KULeuven) (document)
  • ‘The Global Information Society, Patents and Universities’ by Christopher May (Lancaster Univ.) (document)
  • Questions and discussion

5.30 - 6.30 pm : General discussion chaired by Eric De Keuleneer

  • Point of view of the authorities (contributions by the European, Federal and Regional authorities are being requested)
  • Concluding comments by Bart Pattyn

6.30 pm : Drink

Newspapers articles

  • Cash voor academische kennis heeft ethische complicaties (De Tijd) (document)
  • Patenten mogen samenleving niet schaden (De Standaard) (document)
  • Octrooiering van universitair onderzoek: zijn we de poten onder onze stoel aan het wegzagen? (document)
  • Octrooien: gangmakers van welvaartscreatie (document)
  • Aspects éthiques de l’utilisation des brevets par les universités (document)
  • Innovation from Public Research in Europe - From IP to IPO (document)


The Ethical Implications of Patenting Academic Research, Bart Pattyn ed., special issue of Ethical Perspectives 13(2), June 2006, 165-304.

The table of contents of this special issue can be seen here.

Can be ordered at:

Uitgeverij Peeters
Bondgenotenlaan 153,
B-3000 Leuven
Tel.: +32 (0)16-23 51 70
Fax: +32-(0)16-22 85 00