Thanks are due to inventor/entrepreneur Mark Sanders (Strida bike and other good stuff) for flagging up this article from TechCrunch. Titled Let’s compete on innovation rather than patents, it’s well enough written to speak for itself, but I’m not going to let that stop me carrying on for a bit. Its main focus is the Chinese government’s alleged aim to make China ‘the world leader in patents in every important industry’. In patents mark you, not innovation. One does not necessarily follow from the other. Citing a New York Times report, author Vivek Wadhwa claims that China’s goal is to file a million patents a year by 2015, aided by a system of bonuses and other inducements to individuals and companies filing the most patent applications. Wadhwa speculates that the result will be millions of poor quality patents, in Chinese, that act as ‘landmines’ for any company wanting to do business in China. He goes on from there to argue that:
In the tech world, patents don’t foster innovation; they inhibit it. They are like nuclear weapons in an arms race, in that companies use them to hold competitors back or to extort license fees from companies that can’t afford the time and cost of litigation. These battles play out every week in Silicon Valley: among the behemoths—Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, and SAP—and between behemoths, startups, patent trolls, and large corporations. Startup entrepreneurs live in constant fear that behemoths or patent trolls will bankrupt them with frivolous lawsuits.
A stance we’d agree with pretty much entirely. Judging by the TechCrunch reply posts, opinion is divided on whether Wadhwa has got it right or wrong, but it all sounds perfectly plausible. The patent system is desperately in need of radical reform whatever China does or doesn’t do, and inventors and innovation will suffer until reform happens. From a private inventor’s perspective, patenting an invention is becoming more and more of a nightmare scenario, and the apparent wish of China to overload an already bloated patent system could just make a bad situation much worse. Strategies that don’t involve patenting must at least be considered, because the cost of owning or defending a patent could kill a start-up or SME much sooner than make it rich.