How The Patent System Is Eating Away At Scientific Research
from the that's-just-great dept
The problems with the patent system are a common refrain around here, with most of the focus being on patent trolls who do no innovating, but wait for real innovation to occur, and then demand a piece of the action. It’s a huge problem, slowing down all sorts of innovation and generally harming our economy in ways that will make it difficult to recover. The problem appears to extend way beyond industry, unfortunately. Slashdot is pointing to a new survey of scientific researchers, who note that 40% note that their work was impacted negatively because of patents. Of those 40%: “58% said their work was delayed, 50% reported they had to change the research, and 28% reported abandoning their research project.” While the post behind that link suggests talking to your elected representatives about patent reform, it’s worth being aware that most of the current plans for patent reforms seem like to make things worse, not better. They’re mostly focused on two main ideas: hiring more patent examiners and switching the patent process in the US to a “first to file” system rather than a “first to invent.” The first is a problem because it ignores the reality of patents today, where so much is going on, and everyone is applying for as many patents as possible. Simply adding more patent examiners will never be enough, because patent examiners don’t scale at a rate anywhere near what would be needed. Years ago, the phone companies realized that human operators connecting every phone call would no longer scale and realized they needed to revamp the entire phone system. Our elected officials and folks in the patent office don’t yet realize they’re facing the same problem. As for “first to file,” while that would bring us in line with most other countries around the world, it also would just encourage companies to file more patents as fast as possible, rather than really spending time to see if their innovation merits a patent.
To really reform the patent system, we need to recognize that patents often grant an unnecessary monopoly. In many cases, the market can reward innovators for actually bringing products to market, rather than simply imagining things. Along those lines, a new test for obviousness is needed. Currently, patent examiners ignore the obviousness question (which is supposed to be a core question asked in granting a patent) and focus only on “prior art.” The two are not the same thing. In many industries, there’s a progression that becomes obvious over time, and it serves no useful purpose to simply grant a full monopoly to the first company (or person) who writes the idea down. It harms competition, it harms innovation, it harms consumers and it harms the economy. Let the real innovators create products and bring them to market where they can compete in the market. This country has a very effective financial market that helps drive money to good ideas — so the argument that small inventors can’t bring things to market doesn’t hold much water either. The patent system needs real reform, but it doesn’t seem likely to get it any time soon.