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Sturm Professor Works to Improve U.S. Patent System

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Octavio Gonzalez

Student Writer

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Bernard Chao with arms extended, speaking

Bernard Chao, professor at Sturm College of Law, has many interests. But his passion lies at the intersection of law and technology, specifically the use and abuse of patents.

A patent grants an inventor exclusive rights to the patented process, design or invention. But that ecosystem is a balancing act, Chao says.

"Imagine if we had to pay Edison's descendants royalties on every light bulb we used. The cost of light bulbs would increase for everyone with no countervailing benefit,” he says. “On the other hand, if we did not provide incentives, companies might not invest in life-saving cancer drugs. Getting this balance right should help encourage original and following innovation.”

Before joining DU, Chao was a patent attorney in Silicon Valley for 20 years. He has litigated high-stakes patent cases, advised federal judges and with a partner co-founded their law firm. Within his first year at DU, Chao was awarded the prestigious Samsung-Stanford Patent Prize for his patent writings.

"This body of work was inspired by my many years representing technology companies,” he says. “My experience suggested that patent verdicts are too high when you consider that patents typically only cover one feature of an incredibly complex technology device.

“My driving theory is that juries focus on the patented feature but ignore all the non-patented features, with me suggesting ways to force juries to think about the context when valuing a patent."

Today, Chao is working to protect data. Tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter have been accused of misusing consumer information. But when it comes to restitution, it’s tricky to win a claim.

"To mitigate this issue, I am arguing in my research that we should allow recovery based on the company's wrongful gains instead of the consumer's injuries,” he says.  

In the classroom, Chao is lauded for making theoretical knowledge applicable in real-life situations.

“Chao’s teaching approach really helped me appreciate the ramifications of how patent law plays out but has additionally given me real-world experience that has elevated my career perspectives,” says Mandi Abbot.

Outside of the classroom, Chao mentors his students. He’s working with Rachel Moodie, a second-year law student, to research how to create a fair market through patents. Patents often incentivize competition through trademarked exclusivity, Chao says. But the system has negative effects too, often making products cost-prohibitive.

For example, Chao and Moodie researched generic drugs’ limits when coming to market. On average, they report, patent holders asserted infringement nine to 12 times more on generic medicines in the U.S. than in Canada or the United Kingdom.

Chao and Moodie took that research to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“With data like this, we could guide policy-making for better patent law,” Moodie says, “and [could allow] the community to obtain technology and medicine at a more readily available price."

With an already distinguished career, Chao says there’s still work to do. He hopes to leave his mark on the patent industry, striking the balance between consumers and companies. 

He says he’s fought opportunistic groups that interfere with economic opportunity and flourishing innovation “when I think that something is wrong with intellectual property, patent laws and privacy laws."

“I will contribute to resolving the issue to the best of my abilities," he vows.