Marvin L. Speck was a professor of food science and microbiology at North Carolina State University when he developed a new process to help people digest milk. Speck recognized that his discovery, which he called SweetAcidophilus in honor of the fact that it improved on the unpleasant taste of the existing process, had commercial possibilities. So in 1972 he convinced the university to assign the trademark to a state dairy foundation, which then signed agreements with two companies, one to manufacture the necessary bacterium and another to market it.

But Speck’s sweet deal turned sour when he discovered he wouldn’t be making any money off his invention. He sued, but in 1984 the state Supreme Court upheld the university’s position that it owned the rights to the process.

That case taught university officials the dangers of an ambiguous policy on patent rights. Now NCSU faculty are required to sign a...

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