A few weeks back, Mike wrote a piece about the recently passed America Invents Act
. One of the details he noted was that the US Patent system would be switched from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file platform under the notion that this would both bring us in line with how most other nation's patents work and cut down on wasted time required to prove the difficult matter of who was first to invent. As the post noted, this could cause some problems:
First, it encourages inventors to file for lots of patents as early as possible to beat anyone else to the Patent Office, rather than making sure that the invention is actually worth patenting. It also seems to go against the basic principle of the patent system, if it's supposed to reward actual inventors.
Of course, this attitude of focusing on filing first before doing anything else is already permeating many businesses. BusinessWeek has the story of a company called Tactus Technology, who hired patent attorney Jeffrey Schox and managed to make its first priority the filing of twenty patent applications
. It did this before getting funding. It did it before even beginning to build a prototype for their invention. And it did it because their attorney is teaching the company to use its patents not as a defense, but as a weapon:
The Schox method revolves around teaching startups to view intellectual property as a weapon. How might a rival get around those patents? What features might they think of? Schox often asks engineers who haven’t even built their first prototype to conceptualize unusual extensions of the technology, so that these ideas can be protected just in case. It’s well worth the trouble. Schox says the going rate for a hot patent now is about $1 million. “Decades ago a machine might have five or 10 patents,” says Schox. “Today, the phone in your pocket has about 5,000. It’s just a much different landscape to think about.”
This is how broad-based patent applications get written. The strategy appears to no longer be to have a great idea and invent it. Instead, the strategy is to have a great idea, patent the ever-living hell out of it, then
patent every conceivable other use for anything similar to your idea, then maybe actually build something (note: Tactus is
actually building something), but also get your wallet ready for all the licensing money that is going to come your way.
Now, perhaps some will suggest that all of this pre-emptive patenting is the incentive that sparks the work on inventions to begin with, but it certainly can't
be what the originators of patent law had in mind. And I think there's a better argument made that all the time spent working with lawyers and filing patents, which the article says, in Tactus' case, took years
, is time lost on having a great invention built, marketed, and sold. After all, we might already have experienced the next great innovation if Tactus' invention had been built three years earlier, but instead, the market only gets the fruit of their labor now because of the drawn-out patenting process resulting from a first-to-file mentality. Tactus' owner, Craig Ciesla, even admits as much in the article:
Following Schox's advice, the company avoided looking for new investors even during the lean times out of fear that its ideas would be exposed. “We made a choice to go with the intellectual property,” Ciesla says. “Now that choice is paying off.”
Wonderful for Ciesla, I guess. However, that certainly doesn't sound like a mentality that fosters "promoting the progress." If anything, it sounds like delaying the progress.