Why Nobel Prize Recipient Never Patented Graphene

Slashdot links to an interview with Andre Geim at Nature News that discusses his Nobel Prize winning research. I am a big fan of graphene for its potential applications in electronics and computing. This research was clearly richly deserved of winning the prize.

The most curious part, though, as Slashdot calls out, is why Geim didn’t patent graphene.

You haven’t yet patented graphene. Why is that?

We considered patenting; we prepared a patent and it was nearly filed. Then I had an interaction with a big, multinational electronics company. I approached a guy at a conference and said, “We’ve got this patent coming up, would you be interested in sponsoring it over the years?” It’s quite expensive to keep a patent alive for 20 years. The guy told me, “We are looking at graphene, and it might have a future in the long term. If after ten years we find it’s really as good as it promises, we will put a hundred patent lawyers on it to write a hundred patents a day, and you will spend the rest of your life, and the gross domestic product of your little island, suing us.” That’s a direct quote.

I considered this arrogant comment, and I realized how useful it was. There was no point in patenting graphene at that stage. You need to be specific: you need to have a specific application and an industrial partner. Unfortunately, in many countries, including this one, people think that applying for a patent is an achievement. In my case it would have been a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Part of me really wanted the reasoning to be more enlightened, an embracing of a scientific commons of thought. Despite the stomach churning encounter with a clear patent mill, Deim is clearly not entirely deterred. Still, the narrowing of consideration to applications is at least more palatable than the rash of recent bad patents that completely preclude entire classes of inventions based on nothing more than basic research. For the rest of us, the encounter also paints a stark contrast between researchers just looking to help subsidize research with patents and corporations trying to completely own a space of interest.

Why Geim Never Patented Graphene, Slashdot

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