While I'm talking about inventorship on patents, I should note that there's a factor that doesn't get the attention it deserves: luck. Well, not the public attention, anyway. But talk to any group of researchers about who gets on which patent, or whose lab produced the most active compounds in any given project, and the word will inevitably come up.>/p>
There's something to that talk. We really don't know how to make active drugs on demand. Otherwise, I can assure you, we'd be making a heck of a lot more of them than we are. There are too many variables, and too many things we just don't understand. In that sense, every drug that's made it to market has been the beneficiary of plenty of luck indeed. At the research stage, you never know who's going to produce the anointed clinical candidate.
And as for who gets on the patent, well, if we don't know what compounds are going to be good ones when the project starts, then it's hard to say what the final patent claims are going to look like, either. People divide up the structure and work on different areas, some of which are going to take off and most of which aren't. When you begin work on a project, you really have no idea where the winds are going to take you.
I'm making it sound like inventorship is all a matter of chance, but that's only partly true. To be listed on a drug patent, you have to have made a distinct non-obvious contribution to the claimed invention, which in our case is usually a new series of compounds. Some idea of yours has to be one of the things that's being claimed. A good mental test is to imagine a lawyer asking you what your part of the invention is. If you can't immediately point to something specific, you're very likely not an inventor.
With that in mind, you can see which way things are headed as a project comes closer to maturity, and judge for yourself if you're likely to be included on the patent(s). Researchers who are alert to this sort of thing often adjust their work accordingly, to have something to point to come patent time. This means that it's harder, especially in some organizations, for lab associates to be listed as inventors. If someone is serving as merely the proverbial pair of hands, they're not going to be on there.
And they shouldn't be. Even if you make the wonder drug that saves the whole project, you're not an inventor if you're just doing what someone else thought up and told you to do. I've always tried to make sure that people who report to me understand the legal requirements of inventorship, and I give them room to think of (and work on) their own ideas. You get better research done that way, too, I might add.
An extra patent note - Gregory Hlatky responds to yesterday's post by pointing out that although we US researchers don't get a cut of the profits from our patents, we don't have to pay the fees associated with filing them, either. He's right that these can be quite substantial, epecially for the ones that you're filing all over the world. I take his point. But I regard those fees as a cost of doing business, like buying reagents (which I'm glad I'm not paying for out of my own pocket, either.) Of course, in the end, we employees are (quite properly) paying for all of these, since that money, derived from business profits, could otherwise be used to increase everyone's salary, among other things. The same argument applies, of course, to the money that would be spent giving inventors a cut of said profits, but I think it could be money well spent.