There’s a neat little article in this week’s The Economist titled ‘The spluttering invention machine‘. The subtitle largely says it all: ‘America’s patent system has problems; a new law would fix only a few’.
Briefly, a patent reform bill has been worming its way through the US legislature, backed by Barack Obama as part of his laudable aim to make the USA more innovative and competitive. As The Economist tells it, opinion is divided on whether it will make matters better or worse for business.
What about inventors? On balance it may disadvantage them, but in the grand scheme of things the pendulum will barely move either way. As has long been customary in the US, UK and European patent systems, nobody gives a damn what inventors think, so the odds are that any reforms won’t even get close to meeting their needs for a more affordable and fairer system.
For example, one aim of the bill is to free up USPTO to set its own fees and keep the loot rather than hand it to the US Treasury. Given that USPTO has a massive applications backlog and needs to hire many more examiners, what’s the betting that fees will rise, possibly steeply?
Frankly, there may be little point in inventors wasting time reading about patent reform, as they’re the last people whose views are sought. They just have to grin and bear whatever change comes along. The only opinions that seem to matter are those of big corporations, the legal profession and academics. The rich, and those who don’t have to pay the bills.
Thus the greatest virtue of the Economist article is that it is short. But perhaps most illuminating is the first paragraph. It includes this:
Patents spur innovation and lay the foundations for future growth, by assuring inventors that they will reap the rewards of their effort and by publicising their discoveries.
‘Assuring inventors that they will reap the rewards of their effort’? Don’t think so. At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, patents are expensive and protect nothing. They don’t ‘assure’ inventors of any reward whatsoever. (Unless by ‘inventors’ The Economist means ‘big companies’.)
In that single sentence, The Economist unintentionally highlights the real need for patent reform: that’s reform of the public understanding of what patents do and don’t do.
Only when it is properly and widely understood that the patent system is of very little help to invention, and by extension to grass-roots innovation, will there be a demand for real and meaningful change. As things stand, patent reform from an inventor’s or very small company’s point of view means little more than rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.