Read our COVID-19 research and news.

running toward money
Credit: Hal Mayforth

The long harm of the law

In graduate school, I had a twin. Not a real twin but a good friend whose interests and path seemed to parallel mine exactly. We were in the same department and the same entering class. We lived together for 2 years. We both liked the medical applications of biophysics. We both thought developmental biology was for zebrafish-loving twerps.

We even looked similar; it was a running joke that friends and strangers alike would call me by his name and vice versa. (This has continued, years later, when on two separate, hilarious occasions our daughters each called the wrong daddy “Daddy.”)

'No science,' growl the lawyers, lint-brushing their power suits, 'until we guide people you’ve never met to sign an inscrutable document.'

We joined the same lab and had our desks in the same room, his by the decrepit circuit breaker box and mine by the decrepit circular dichroism instrument. We took coffee orders for each other’s oral exam committees.

One day in our sixth year, my pseudo twin approached me with some news. “I know what I want to do after I graduate,” he said. Then he added, uncomfortably, “But you can’t steal my idea.”

We had been talking about possible next steps when (or if) we ever earned our Ph.D.s. Having been trained in academia, we knew we had a choice between either an academic postdoc or I-don’t-know-maybe-Google-it.

After months of searching, Google had been kind to him, and he was scheming to protect his treasure. I immediately imagined the job description he had found:

Wanted: Ph.D. biologist with zero credentials and no postdoc to become senior executive of gigantic, wealthy biotechnology company. The successful applicant should have extensive experience with differential scanning calorimetry, consumption of beer, and complaining about grad school. Compensation includes a signing bonus of 10 pinball machines—good ones, not that early ‘90s Gottlieb crap—full use of the office kitten pile, and a salary sufficient to restore the lost pride of parents who have nearly given up on their sixth-year grad student. Interested candidates should submit a hasty e-mail. A letter of reference from your current thesis adviser is not required because the jerk will probably just make stuff up anyway. We don’t like that guy either. You’re the best.

But that’s not the job he found. Instead, he said something for which I was completely unprepared: “I want to do technology transfer and intellectual property law.”

I didn’t know exactly what that was, but it smelled like portfolios and clients and the word “whereas.”

If you like this story, you can read more Experimental Error columns <a href="//">here</a>.

If you like this story, you can read more Experimental Error columns here.

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

“Wow,” I said. “Um—don’t worry. That one’s all yours.”

Because, see, in my experience, scientists and lawyers work against each other. “We’d like to do science!” declare scientists. Other scientists reply, “We’d like to do science with you!” But before the scientists can skip off, arm in arm, the lawyers step in.

“No science,” growl the lawyers, lint-brushing their power suits, “until we guide people you’ve never met to sign an inscrutable document.”

“But we wish to enlarge the boundaries of human knowledge,” plead the scientists. “Our dream is so beautiful and innocent.”

“You may not,” the lawyers reply, trapshooting baby otters. “Furthermore, you will pay us for this service, and we will pretend it is necessary. Pull!”

What was my friend thinking? What could possibly drive a smart person with a mind for science to a career that so blatantly impedes science?

Oh, right, grad school. But still.

Intellectual property law? I’ve read patents. One of my graduate courses asked students to found a fictitious biotech company, then search patents to see whether we could sell our product. Not only did I learn how boring it is to read them; I learned that patents are downright awful.

I had naively assumed that patents would be written very specifically and clearly so that there could be no disputing what they cover. Nope! Patents are aggressively vague, claiming ownership of anything semi-related.

For example, let’s say you’ve made a drug. A sane patent would read, “We’re patenting this drug”—simple, unambiguous, and specific. A real patent would read as follows:

Hear ye, behold, whereas whereas. We are patenting this drug. As such, we are also patenting the gene it targets. And the same gene in protein form. And any recombinant protein that looks distantly homologous. And any drug made by a similar process. And all drugs in the universe, including those yet undiscovered. And the universe.

What would possess my friend to make such a choice? I know what you’re thinking: He saw the starting salary of a patent attorney, recalled that he was living in a rat-infested slum house (with me!), and decided that someday his kids should have shoes.

But, while I’m sure he fondly imagined the prospect of changing television channels without using needle-nose pliers, it was not just the money. This was genuine interest. And it was genuine interest in—law.

I know what else you’re thinking: You’re thinking there are too many documentary-style television shows about large families. But, pertinent to this article, you’re thinking that lawyers play an important role in science. They preemptively divide the credit for undiscovered breakthroughs so that when a breakthrough becomes useful, it becomes valuable. That’s great, because it drives innovation by making scientists want to discover useful things so that they can become wealthy.

But that doesn’t happen very often. How many things we discover can actually be monetized? Think about your own work, which you should be doing now instead of reading this. How many of your lab’s discoveries require legal documents? How many of them are making money?

Of course it would suck if you did stumble upon something valuable, and because you eschewed lawyers, you couldn’t protect it from people who want to steal it. Someone else could make millions from your brilliance and buy their own kitten pile. Or, because no one protected it, no one can make money: no lawyers, no kittens. Really, if you have a brilliant idea and haven’t protected it, your best bet is to e-mail it to me.

This may be the comedic understatement of the century, but it’s easy to make fun of lawyers. We can say that they waste their energy protecting scientific discoveries, when 99% of the discoveries don’t really need protection. But then the lawyers could turn it around and point out that 99% of what we discover has no practical use.

So maybe my friend did become an important gear of the scientific machine. And now, years later, by all accounts he loves his job, and his children love having shoes.

Maybe we need the just-in-case assurance that patents and material transfer agreements offer. Maybe we need people like him who understand the law to help the rest of us—not just to make money, because that doesn’t motivate all scientists, but to protect us from the creeps who would profit from someone else’s ingenuity.

Maybe we do need the law in science. We just don’t need to want it.