WARF's Stem Cell Patents and Tensions between Public and Private Sector Approaches to Research



While society debates whether and how to use public funds to support work on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), many scientific groups and businesses debate a different question — the extent to which patents that cover such stem cells should be permitted to limit or to tax their research. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), a non-profit foundation that manages intellectual property generated by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, owns three patents that have been at the heart of the latter controversy The story of WARF's patents and the controversy they have fostered highlights not only continuing tensions between proprietary and nonproprietary approaches to developing science and technology, but also an at least partly reassuring capacity of public and private sectors to deal with those tensions in a way that can render them substantially manageable, and frequently more manageable as a technology matures. More particularly, the cumulative story of WARF's patents features three leitmotifs that suggest how an attentive and engaged public sector might commonly succeed in working with public and private sector actors to achieve workable balances between proprietary rights and more general social interests: (1) right holders' decisions to pursue less than full rights assertion or enforcement; (2) the ability of government and other public sector actors to help bring about such decisions through co-option or pressure; and (3) the frequent availability or development of technological alternatives that limit research bottlenecks.