But when Douglass tried to arrange a pardon, Taborsky refused, stating that “clemency will not undo my conviction. Petitioning for clemency is asking for forgiveness. My main concern is overturning my wrongful conviction.”
Meanwhile, USF has remained steadfast. “The case is no different from that of a former student stealing something from the university, like precious books from the library,” says Henry Lavendera, an attorney for the university. “We are concerned that potential sponsors will view it as a black eye for the institution if we allow student researchers to steal information.”
USF president Betty Castor said in a recent statement that Taborsky has no one to blame but himself for his imprisonment. But in the future, Castor said, the university will file only civil suits for intellectual theft instead of pressing for criminal charges.
For the present, Taborsky will remain incarcerated, though now at a minimum-security prison after intervention from the governor’s office. However, hearings on the outstanding civil suits in this case will resume this April. After having reportedly spent more than $300,000 in outside legal counsel to prosecute the case, USF recently succeeded in persuading a Florida judge to assign one of three patents to the university as restitution. It is now suing Taborsky over the remaining two patents. And Taborsky is countersuing the university, its board of regents, and two principal investigators personally, including Carnahan.
Leonard Minsky, whose organization is aiding in Taborsky’s defense, considers the case a clear example of the negative effects that can result from corporate involvement in university research. The problem stems, he maintains, from a 1980 federal-policy change that gave universities the right to own patents on discoveries made on campus, and companies the right to obtain exclusive licenses by sponsoring the research. Since then, the financing of research by private industry on campuses has grown nationally to $1.5 billion per year, according to the National Science Foundation. And at USF, with 36,000 students the second-largest state university in Florida, sponsored research has grown from $22 million in 1986 to about $100 million today.
Offering some perspective on the matter, Cornelius Pings, president of the Association of American Universities, a Washington, D.C.based consortium of the nation’s largest research universities, notes that Taborsky’s is the only case he has heard of where someone has been jailed over a patent dispute. But despite what he calls the “bizarre” nature of the case, Pings says that underlying tensions over intellectual property rights at universities are real and mounting.
“To the extent that patent income is there, there is no reason the university should give it away,” Pings says. After all, he notes, “universities have profited handsomely from patent revenues for years and, for the most part, the system has been managed as it should be.” But while today’s universities cannot, and perhaps should not, maintain they are “above commerce,” he says, they do need to protect their role “as temples of intellectual inquiry.”
Pings says his association has “urged its member institutions to work out detailed rules governing intellectual property issues that are mutually acceptable to all parties.” If they can’t tackle these issues, universities stand to lose more than money, he says. “We could lose a lot of our credibility.”