Dear CNN: Patents Are Not A Proxy For Innovation

from the get-real dept

We've seen it over and over again in the press. They love to assume that the number of patents being filed is a proxy for innovation. There's just one (large) problem with that. Multiple studies have shown no connection between patents and innovation. But, don't tell that to the reporters at CNN who are fretting about how the "recession" has taken its latest victim: US Innovation. This is ridiculous on so many levels that even patent system defenders are disagreeing with CNN. First, CNN bases this on a minuscule 2.3% decline in patent filings, despite a massive growth in patent filings over the past fifteen years.

But, more importantly, there is no indication whatsoever that this means anything in terms of US innovation. No one at CNN seemed to think it was even worth trying to actually back up that claim with any evidence whatsoever. If innovation were really declining in the US, you would think there would be some sort of tangible evidence of it, but CNN and reporter David Goldman never bother to even look for it. Tragically, USPTO boss David Kappos -- who should know better -- perpetuates the myth that the two are directly connected. In commenting on the decline in patent applications, he notes:
"That's unfortunate because [patent filings] are a reflection of innovation," said David Kappos, director of the Patent Office. "Innovation creates so many jobs and so much opportunity for our country. It is absolutely key to our long-term success in the global economy."
But, of course, there is no indication that this tiny drop in applications is reflective of anything at all when it comes to innovation. It could be a whole variety of factors, from firms recognizing what a waste it is to patent certain things, to companies deciding not to waste money on patents during a recession, to the various court rulings that have finally put a tiny pushback on what is considered "patentable." But none of that suggests any limit on US innovation or ingenuity. And, it's even more ridiculous to claim, as Kappos appears to do in that quote, that this drop in patent applications could represent a decrease in jobs and opportunity. That statement is even more laughable, since Kappos must know that the number of jobs created is not even remotely related to the number of patents granted or held (just ask some patent hoarding firms that hold many patents but employ just one or two people). What a shame that Kappos would repeat such myths. As boss of the PTO, perhaps he feels it's his mission to overstate the importance of the organization, but his claims should have at least some basis in reality.

But, of course, a good explanation for why this is happening is explained (though, not by the CNN reporter who appears to miss it entirely) later in the article: the USPTO is entirely funded by patent application fees. Thus, it has every incentive to get more people to file, and to play up the prestige and value of a patent, even when the evidence is to the contrary. So, now it appears that CNN becomes the PR arm of the Patent Office, rather than actually looking to find out what's going on.
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Filed Under: david kappos, innovation, jobs, patents

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  1. identicon
    Gena777, 21 Dec 2009 @ 5:23pm

    Innovation Is Alive and Well

    Though some complain because the drop in filings has cut into their profits, perhaps it's a positive turn of events, in some ways. Maybe fewer junk patents will tie up the filing system. And, quite likely, recently we've been experiencing in patent law a "bubble" that finally burst. In any case, I agree that innovation and patent filings, though related, are not synonymous. So, in short, I suspect that the rumors of the death of innovation have been greatly exaggerated.

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