If Two People Invent The Same Thing At The Same Time, Should One Get A Patent?

from the obviousnous dept

For quite a long time, we've argued that one of the problems with the patent system is that it goes way overboard in providing rights to whoever came up with an idea first, even if others independently developed the same idea. That's lead some to suggest that patents should have an "independent invention" defense. After all, the patent system is designed specifically to encourage innovation where it might not occur otherwise (basically, assuming that there's market failure for innovation). If multiple people are coming up with the product simultaneously, that suggests (1) that there's demand in the market providing plenty of incentive for innovation and (2) the idea is not particularly non-obvious (as a patented concept must be).

Noel Le points us to some recent research on the topic including one by Mark Lemley and another by Samson Vermont (warning: pdf). The good news is that it's clear that more than a few people are thinking about this very issue. Vermont's piece also has a compelling response to the claim (usually from patent attorneys) that adding in an "independent invention" defense would simply lead to lies from people claiming to have invented a product independently. Vermont explains why there's little evidence to support that, given that with the system today, someone would get even greater benefit in falsifying a claim of "first to invent," and yet it's rarely seen. There are tremendous penalties associated with fraud and perjury (which lying about an invention would amount to), and that (plus moral issues) seem to make that argument less of an issue.

Unfortunately, it appears that Le completely misreads Lemley's article in his writeup about it. He positions Lemley's piece to be arguing against the "independent invention" defense, when if you read the paper, that's not the case at all. Lemley is clearly compelled by it, but just notes that rushing to put it in place without some limitations could create problems -- mainly due to legacy issues. His argument isn't (as Le claims) that adding such a defense would "reduce incentives to innovate and impose inefficiency on the market for patents." Rather, Lemley points out that Vermont's push for an independent invention defense is based on a few assumptions, and if they are wrong, then it could present problems. However, Lemley doesn't seem to be saying that those assumptions are wrong -- just that if an independent invention defense is implemented, it should be done in a way that carefully watches to see if the assumptions hold up (in fact, Lemley seems to agree that Vermont's assumptions may be true). Also, there is an important point that Lemley makes, that we've been suggesting for years. You may not even need an independent invention defense, if you had a better "obviousness" test for patents. The fact that two totally separate entities came up with the same idea, that certainly suggests that the idea had some element of obviousness to it, and was the general progression in the space. In that case, there's no real policy reason to support that patents be given, since the incentives are already put in place by the market. It's good to see that these issues are getting a serious discussion in some areas -- though, whether or not these discussions will ever actually influence policy is another question completely.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Jan 2007 @ 12:00pm

    By obvious, I mean (as the patent system demands) obvious to people skilled in the art. If two people in the same field are coming to the same conclusion, it suggests that's the obvious direction of progress in the space, rather than some sort of breakthrough that deserves special protection.

    Thanks Mike. The clarification helps put the term "obvious" in the context of the patent system. But because I'm no expert in patent law, I'm looking at the issue in broader terms.

    I would agree that there has to be a line drawn somewhere between something that is so obvious it does not deserve a patent and something that is a breakthrough which does. But where to draw the line? I can't help but think about the breakthroughs that were deemed obvious after they were discovered/invented. Spapping his forehead, the scientist said, "Of course! Why didn't I think of that?!"

    There's a great quote by Arthur Schopenhauer...
    "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

    Not that the patent system seems to be in any danger becoming too restrictive (i.e. excluding too many "obvious" things ), but I still find myself being skeptical of too heavy a reliance on the concept of obviousness. I understand it has a specific meaning in the context of patent law, but I keep on coming back to how easy it is to say something is obvious after it's been explained to you. Anyone at the time could have come up with the idea of natrual selection. All the information was there. But anyone didn't; Darwin did.

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