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Universities are increasingly finding themselves in a licensing bind. Some of the most important genetic advances in agriculture have been patented by schools and licensed exclusively to companies. However, when universities want to use these technologies, often for humanitarian work, they can’t. For example, Cornell University developed a particle gun to move genes into plants. But because it licensed the technology exclusively to DuPont, Cornell itself as well as other universities that wanted to help farmers in developing countries couldn’t afford the hefty fee to use the gun, says Gary Toenniessen, director of food security programming at the Rockefeller Foundation. Another school, Washington University in St. Louis, developed technology, in conjunction with Monsanto Company, to make genetically modified plants that can withstand a chemical spray called Roundup that kills weeds. But small specialty crops, including broccoli, are not profitable enough for companies to make them Roundup ready. Small farmers, along with broccoli lovers, suffer because of it, says Michael Lang, a licensing associate and patent attorney in the Office of Intellectual Property at Michigan State University. “Genetically modified crops were supposed to help hunger and food security and economic development,” says Lang. “But this hasn’t happened.” Universities are now banding together through a new organization called the Public-Sector Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA). The group creates a mechanism for universities to share information in order to negotiate better licensing agreements. PIPRA intends to help universities manage their biotechnology patents more carefully so that schools reserve their rights to use research for humanitarian purposes in poor countries. The group also aims to help domestic small farmers develop specialty crops. Currently, PIPRA has about two dozen participants, including Cornell, University of Wisconsin, and Michigan State University. So far, funding has come from the Rockefeller and McKnight foundations, but PIPRA eventually plans to impose membership fees and turn itself into a self-sustaining organization. Eventually, the group hopes to pool its members’ patents and license out IP packages at rates that would be greater than the sum of individual licenses. Lang, who is working with PIPRA on Michigan State’s behalf, says more legal questions — particularly liability issues — are sure to arise as university officials explore new ways to pool patents and form licensing agreements. But, he says, the possibilities for new business are endless. “Universities are not going to be able to go back and renegotiate existing licenses. This is one limitation,” says Lang. “So we are looking at what can be licensed in the future.” Alexandra Dell, a freelance writer in New York City, writes for various American Lawyer Media publications.

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