In May 28 IssueBy Jeff Smith, Columnist
It has recently occurred to me that if not for the current state of the US Patent system, I would have much much cooler things to write about.
The patent system is permitted by Article One, Section 8(8) of the U.S. Constitution which states:
The Congress shall have power...To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;
But lately, the Patent office has done anything BUT promote progress. Patents have become a way of holding back competition by lawyering up and demanding royalties in the name of the almighty "Intellectual Property Rights." If you're not familiar with the term, Intellectual Property Rights are a very fancy way of saying "I had that idea before you". A patent, therefore, is the ability by government to grant exclusive rights (aka monopoly power) over an invention or concept to a person or corporation.
As everyone knows, its much easier to copy an idea than to create one. Patents are designed to protect inventors from having their creations stolen out from under them. The idea was to protect the inventor long enough to allow he (or she) to bring the invention to market and profit from it. This kept the idea from being stolen by someone who may not have been as creative or intelligent, but who had the means of stealing the inventor's thunder by bringing the item to market more quickly.
That is all well and good, but it isn't really how patents are being used in the modern age. Now there are companies whose sole purpose is to throw a wrench into the patent system and profit off of the ensuing chaos. These patent trolls, as they are called, purchase and collect large portfolios of patents on items that they never intend to bring onto the market. Their tactic is to wait until someone else brings the invention to market, at which point they sue the pants off of them and make off with all of the profits. (Does anyone question why we call them trolls?)
The other thing that is wrong about the patent system is how it is used by Big Oil and other large industries to squash inventions and discoveries that would otherwise completely rearrange the playing field. How does that work? Its fairly simple. Lets say I invent some amazing device that allows a car to run on sewer water (since we're imagining it, we'll pretend it does it in an entirely safe an non-gross way). Next thing you know, I'm contacted by representatives from the oil industry with a proposition I can't refuse. They'll give me umpteen million dollars for my invention, or a bullet in the head. My choice. Wow, thats a tough one, right? So I take the money, and I am personally living it up for the rest of my life in Maui having a grand ole time. The invention patent is buried in a drawer somewhere in a locked file cabinet in a barricaded basement broom closet with a sign on the door that reads "Beware of the leopard" (HHGG rules!) The invention never sees the light of day, and gas prices are free to continue moving swimmingly toward the heavens.
Some might argue that the purpose of the patent system has been fulfilled in this case because I, the inventor, has obviously profited well from the invention, but I say "nay". The true purpose of the patent system is to "promote the progress of science and useful arts"... ensuring the opportunity for inventors to profit is the means by which this supposed to be accomplished. People generally work harder for something if their own well-being is wrapped up in it (which is coincidentally why communism always fails). The grander scheme of the patent system is to improve life for all of us. We the people.
What SHOULD happen is that any patent given should be revoked in five years if it isn't brought to market in a reasonably priced manner. (notice that last bit there, charging $20 million is just as effective as the leopard closet, even though the invention could be said to be 'on the market').
Will patent reform ever happen? Probably not. Politicians, even in Grand ole' Kentucky have shown that they're all about taking care of their best good friends, Big Oil. (I'm looking at you McConnell). Until we stop electing people who care more about corporations than they do about us, things like patent reform will continue to be as much of a pipe dream as cars that run on toilet water.