Efforts to protect "the fusion thing" from technology pirates got off to a somewhat shaky start when University of Utah researchers neglected to notify the person whose job it is to secure legal patents - the Utah attorney general.
Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam told local Democrats last week he was taken by surprise by the announcement as the university failed to notify his office about the discovery."When you superimpose the fusion craziness on what's going on in the attorney general's office, this has been a three-ring circus of unparalleled experience for me," he said, referring to the fact that his office was amid a reorganization at the time the fusion story broke.
State attorneys had to act immediately to patent every conceivable nuance related to the complex fusion process to stave off intellectual infringement that threatened the university's position and Utah's potential to benefit from the valuable breakthrough, he said.
He said it became necessary to hire outside lawyers specializing in physics and patent law. A law firm in Salt Lake City and another in Houston, Texas, that specializes exclusively in patent law were hired under contract to help with the work in addition to a lawyer in California.
"It's a big enough thing that we have to take every precaution . . . and we don't have spare people to do it," Van Dam said. "We have had to find attorneys who are nuclear physicists or chemists who are also lawyers."
Van Dam, the first Democrat to take control of the attorney general's office in 20 years, recalled events in his office associated with the discovery of fusion during a keynote speech at a Grand County Democratic Party Convention.
He said the fact the university made the announcement publicly without giving advance notice to the attorney general's office illustrates the independence of the institution's actions.
"They hadn't given thought to all the ramifications. They were caught up in the excitement of discovery," he said. "They weren't thinking what the world of vultures would do to try to get their hands on it."
Van Dam said all kinds of patent issues are associated with the scientific process, and the half-million dollars the Legislature appropriated in special session to help protect Utah's interests will easily be spent on patenting, licensing and contracting processes.
A big problem, he said, is nobody can patent the basic physical phenomenon, just as no one can patent gravity.
"So we have to patent how we achieved the particular result. There could be a lot of different ways to achieve the result, so we're trying to patent every possible way it could be arrived at-the technology," he said.
"We're simply trying to set Utah up in the sense that it'll realize significant royalties and money from the invention itself."
There have been claims from Brigham Young University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that the U. is not the first cold-fusion inventor, Van Dam said.
"They've all done something similar, with slight variations, so we're having to cover our flanks. And all the big companies are sniffing around."
Van Dam told the Democratic gathering that state attorneys initially encountered "junk" at the university in the process of trying to protect the state's legal interests.
"The University of Utah was playing games . . . and we have had to cut through that."
He explained later that by "games" he basically meant problems in dealing with some of the university hierarchy and tenured scientists.
The university has acted independently for a long time, the scientists work with a great deal of autonomy and authority and resist what may appear to be impositions on that authority, Van Dam said.
"It was an educational thing for me," Van Dam said, to remind the institution that technically "we're their lawyers."
"Scientists are not lawyers," he added. "They don't understand we need this stuff (information and cooperation in the patenting process), that from a legal point of view, we have to do things formally."
Warm welcome expected
University of Utah professors B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann have their day in court Monday, and the jury - fellow members of the Electrochemical Society - is expected to be warm.
The two men were to address the society's biannual meeting in Los Angeles and said they'd give the most detailed explanation yet of their claim of cold fusion in a bottle.
"We're going to present new results that exhibit very large amounts of excess heat," Pons told the Deseret News Saturday. On March 23, U. officials stunned the scientific world when they announced that Pons and his British colleague Fleischmann (who has since been appointed a U. professor) had created cold nuclear fusion - turning heavy hydrogen into helium - in a simple table-top experiment.