A Commercial Opportunity?

Shen was always interested in bioinformatics and decided to use some of his free time to write a program that others in his microbial genetics laboratory would find useful. Starting with a popular spreadsheet program on his university-provided computer, he wrote the program over the summer and posted it on his personal Web page as a bundle that combined the spreadsheet program and his own program. Over the next academic year, he improved his program several times based partly on the feedback he got from the people in his laboratory who were using it.

At national meetings, he discovered that researchers in other laboratories had begun to download and use his program package, and friends told him that they knew of researchers who were using it in industry. When the issue arose in a faculty meeting, Shen’s faculty adviser told him that he should talk with the university’s technology transfer office about commercializing it. “After all,” his adviser said, “if you don’t, a company will probably copy it and sell it and benefit from your hard work.”

The director of the technology transfer office was much more concerned about another issue: the fact that Shen had been redistributing the spreadsheet in violation of its license. “You do have rights to what you created, but the company that sells this spreadsheet also has rights,” he said. “We need to talk about this before we talk about commercialization.”

  1. What obligations does Shen have to the developer of the original spreadsheet program? To the university that provided the spreadsheet and computer?

  2. What are the pros and cons of trying to commercialize a program that is based on another’s product?

  3. What conflicts and practical difficulties might Shen encounter if he tries to operate a business while working on his dissertation?



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