Dr. Mark Charest, a chemistry PhD student who graduated from Harvard in 2004, is suing the university and Andrew Myers, his PhD advisor, over the royalties associated with a patent covering intellectual property developed during Charest’s graduate work.
In 2005, the Myers Lab published this paper in Science that described a new synthetic route to 6-deoxytetracycline antibiotics. Charest was the first author on the paper, and the work was patented by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (prior to submission for publication). A company, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals, was started to commercialize the work by licensing the tetracycline patent from the university.
According to Charest’s complaint:
- Harvard’s policy is to distribute royalties equally among all of the inventors on a patent unless the inventors agree to a different distribution.
- Harvard OTD asked Charest and his former labmates to voluntarily accept a distribution of 50% to Myers, 15% to Charest, 15% to Dionicio Siegel, 15% to Christian Lerner, and 5% to Jason Brubaker (the five co-authors of the paper).
- The four co-authors besides Myers agreed amongst themselves to a distribution of 18.75% to Charest, 11.25% to Siegel, 10% to Lerner, and 10% to Brubaker. Myers would not participate in this discussion and his 50% share was not open to discussion.
- When Charest later spoke to Myers, Myers told Charest to “tread lightly”, “be careful”, and “think about [his] career”. Charest interpreted these statements as threats.
- Charest initially refused to accept an unequal distribution of the royalties, and then engaged in a series of exchanges where Harvard’s representative threatened to directly cut Charest’s share of the royalties or to shift the distribution of licensing payments to a second patent on which Charest was not listed as an inventor. Fearful of this threat, Charest signed an agreement to accept 18.75% of the royalties for the first patent (presumably, the distribution arranged by the four postdocs/students).
- The second patent never materialized, and Charest believes it was a ruse fabricated to force his hand to volunteer to let Myers get a 50% cut of the royalties.
- Later, Charest describes a second act in which Harvard’s OTD did shift royalties away from Charest’s patent.
- Myers refused to serve as a reference when Charest applied for a position at a venture capital firm, and Myers would not return phone calls when a potential employer directly contacted Myers regarding Charest.
Charest appealed to an internal review board at Harvard, but his case was unsuccessful. His lawsuit filed on Friday seeks reallocation of the royalties, punitive damages, and a bunch of other stuff that is outside my complete comprehension. Read the document for yourself.
It will be interesting to see how this story plays out, but it would seem to be yet another cautionary tale that when you are a graduate student, you are in a position of incredible weakness. As is said, your advisor holds your paycheck in one hand and your letter of recommendation in the other. And in case you are naive, the chains don’t get unshackled just because you’ve graduated. You’re still going to need that letter of recommendation for future jobs, so if your old boss wants to take 50% of the royalties, what’s to stop him?
Disclosure: I went to Harvard for my graduate work and regularly came into contact with Myers, Charest, and Brubaker, as my desk was right next to the Myers Lab. I know Mark Charest and had several conversations with him over the course of my graduate career. I think I saw him one or two times after he graduated, and I’ve had no interaction with him since I graduated from Harvard.
H/T to A.D. for tipping off ChemBark