When the University of Pittsburgh recruited world renowned physicist Dr. David Townsend to join its faculty in 1993, he never dreamt his tenure there would end amid spurious legal attacks on his character and ethics.
The preeminent inventor and his collaborator developed a means of integrating the Positron Emission Tomograph (PET) and Computerized Axial Tomograph (CT) scanners to greatly improve imaging results and, as a result, saving the lives of countless cancer patients.
But when his invention began to realize multimillion-dollar potential, Pitt unleashed a team of lawyers who filed a lawsuit charging that Townsend "breached certain contracts, tortiously interfered with contractual relations, breached fiduciary duties, misappropriated or converted proprietary interests and rights, engaged in an unlawful conspiracy, committed fraud and misrepresentations, and was unjustly enriched by his actions."
Dr. Townsend said he was floored when he first read the lawsuit, in which Pitt laid claim to a share of the profits from the PET/CT invention. He maintains that the university did nothing to contribute to the invention and was well aware he had been working on it long before he joined the Pitt faculty.
"When I read the first filing about conspiracy and fiduciary responsibilities and all the rest of it, to say I was scared would have been an understatement. I mean we were being accused of conspiring to defraud the University of Pittsburgh. It was all nonsense, but the way it was couched in legal terms, it scared me to death... They just throw everything at you and see what sticks and in the end nothing stuck," Townsend said.
"A bunch of university lawyers sat together and said 'we have a case here, he screwed the university and let's put together a suit that accuses him of everything short of murder'", Townsend said, reflecting on the four-year legal battle he fought between 2003 and 2007.
Townsend's case shows what can happen when cash-strapped universities unleash ruthless lawyers on their faculty inventors in the wanton pursuit of profits from intellectual property.
The case against Townsend was eventually thrown out, but other faculty inventors have not been so lucky. Frightened by the prospect of costly and protracted legal battles, many simply surrender the rights to their work without a fight.
"This kind of thing is getting more and more common because the universities are more and more desperate for funding. They look upon taking this intellectual property as a way of generating a huge amount of funds," Townsend said.