Innovation. It's the cornerstone of the American economy and the American dream. Society only moves forward when people find the inspiration and the energy to create. Unfortunately, the system designed to encourage and foster innovation is becoming one of the biggest obstacles to it.
Increasingly, the U.S. patent system is becoming a labyrinth filled with trapdoors, hidden dangers and trolls. We can't do away with it, but if we apply some of our ingenuity to it, we can turn it into something that works a lot better.
If we want to improve the patent system, we have to remember the purpose of intellectual property in the first place. The original objective of these systems is to encourage invention and innovation. Inventors invest their time, energy (and often money) into exploring new ideas and trying to come up with something that will create value for society. In exchange, when they do, we offer them special business protection so they can reap the rewards of their labor.
I see two major problems with the system as it stands today.
- It is far too difficult and costly to identify whether something has already been invented. In the days of physical, mechanical inventions, it was an easier task to look around and see if you saw something that looked like your idea. Now, complex and obscure software and business process patents can be nearly impossible to find, even if you are looking for them.
This also skews the system in favor of massive corporations with in-house patent lawyers and deep pockets.
- The current system has allowed for the genesis of patent trolls, who make little or no efforts to bring their patents to the public, either via productization or proactive licensing ("Hey, we have this great technology that we think could make your product even better. Want to license it?")
Instead, they often sit back and wait for someone to accidentally invent the same thing, then use the legal system to try to extract a payment.
Here's how we can make the system better:
Patent-holders should be required to actively attempt to commercialize their patents in order to maintain their rights. This is not a cost-prohibitive thing. Even an independent inventor can set up a free website to highlight their invention and solicit business deals.
The patent office should also require patent-holders to file a "plain english" abstract of their patent, made available via an easily searchable and sortable database (think categories and tags, as if in a blog). Each year the patent-holder should be required to review and update this abstract with their vision of how the patent could be applied to the current state of technology.
These changes could help make the patent system more productive for society and less dangerous for innovators. If you agree with me, please add your thoughts below and share this article with as many people as you can. We need innovation to protect innovation.