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01.24.11

The Patent System — USPTO in Particular — Comes Under More Fire

Posted in Patents at 3:07 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

David Kappos

Summary: USPTO needs to change in order to restore approval from citizens whom it supposedly serves

HOW MUCH does the USPTO want to be hated? More and more people speak out against it these days, simply because it cannot make a case in its defence when those who benefit are not scientists but lawyers and franchisees. A little while ago, TechDirt — a longtime patents critic — did some decent investigative work to demonstrate a contemporary chaining of patent trolls, working at someone’s behest a lot of the time (Nathan Myhrvold uses this trick extensively). To quote later parts of the detailed analysis:

Unfortunately, that’s about where the sleuthing runs out… and it really doesn’t tell us that much. We already knew that Vertigo was the parent company, and who owns/runs Vertigo is secret. We did learn that another company owned by Vertigo is using more patents from the same inventors to sue more companies, but that’s about it. Either way, as a basic exercise, it certainly teaches you a fair amount about the sneaky and hidden nature of how patent trolls operate, with layer upon layer of shell companies, changing patent assignments and licenses, all of which hide whoever is actually pulling the strings. It really does make you wonder how this kind of thing does anything whatsoever to improve innovation.

Michael Trick writes about “More patent madness!”, putting forth an example of something that was patented long after it had really been ‘invented’:

Limited discrepancy search has been around since 1995 and occurs often in research (Google scholar is showing 465 references). It is a pretty simple idea: if you are doing a tree search and you have a good idea that, say, all the variables should be 1 (but might not be in the optimal solution), you first search the “all 1″ side of the branches, then try the “all 1 except one” then then “all 1 except two” and so on. Call it twenty lines of code to control the tree search in this manner. Seems like a reasonable approach, but patentable? You have got to be kidding!

[...]

Patents (and companies trying to enforce them) make creating open source software much, much more difficult. How many developers would know that if you embed a method from a 1995 paper in software, you may run afoul of a patent claim?

Patents exist to encourage innovation. The current system, with nonsense like this, serves only to stifle it.

“Inglourious Software Patents” is another good new post which goes around the Web at this moment. It says:

The patent system exists to provide an incentive for innovation where that incentive would not have existed otherwise.

Imagine you’re an individual living in the 19th century. Let’s say the patent system does not exist and you have an idea to make a radically better kind of sewing machine. If you invested the time to develop your idea into a working invention, the existing sewing machine companies would just steal your design and crush you in the marketplace. They have massive distribution and production advantages that you wouldn’t be able to compete with. You wouldn’t be able to monetize the initial investment you made into developing that invention. Therefore, you wouldn’t have invented the radically better sewing machine in the first place.

From this perspective, patents are actually a rather clever hack on society to encourage innovation. By excluding others from using your invention for a fixed amount of time, you get a temporary monopoly on your invention. This lets you monetize your invention which makes your initial investment worthwhile. This in turn benefits society as a whole, as now society has inventions that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

[...]

Quite the opposite. Software startups are thriving nowadays in spite of software patents rather than because of them. Instead of helping startups get off the ground, patents are a cost. Startups must build “defensive patent portfolios” and worry about getting sued by patent trolls or businesses trying to entrench their position. Instead of patents being a protective shield for a startup, they’re instead a weapon that causes economic waste.

Vivek Wadhwa, consistently a critic of software patents despite having some which he now regrets [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] advises China not to compete on the basis of patents:

The Times quotes David J. Kappos, director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, as saying that the leadership in China “knows that innovation is its future, the key to higher living standards and long-term growth. They are doing everything they can to drive innovation, and China’s patent strategy is part of that broader plan”. Kappos seems to believe that, with patents, China is unleashing a golden age of innovation.

Kappos is wrong.

The reality, as I explained in my BusinessWeek column China Could Game the U.S. in Intellectual Property, is that patents will neither make China more innovative nor benefit the global economy. Just as the vast majority of China’s academic papers are plagiarized or irrelevant, so will its government-sponsored patents be tainted. In contrast to the tiny proportion of Chinese academic papers that serve to expand the world’s knowledge base, however, Chinese patents will serve as land mines for foreign businesses. They will allow China to demand license fees from companies that do business there or to shut them out entirely. (And these will hurt China’s own startups.)

Kappos did not bring the change we had hoped for [1, 2, 3]. People who actually make products hope for change… real change. Is there a chance of In Re Bilski making a comeback in light of conflicts of interest?

Apparently two of the SCOTUS justices, Scalia and Thomas, were deeply involved in “conservative” (not sure what they are conserving but it’s not impartial justice) political events. That brings to mind how they ruled in Bilski. Did these two justices have a hidden agenda and should they have recused themselves or should they be impeached?

It’s too easy to find some reasons to sack a SCOTUS justice (e.g. Kagan for allegedly being gay). The problem is likely to be the USPTO, which is still run by people who simply treat is like business as opposed to an establishment dedicated to the goal improving innovation. The patent system has been hacked. It’s vulnerable and antiquated.

“People naively say to me, “If your program is innovative, then won’t you get the patent?” This question assumes that one product goes with one patent.” —Richard Stallman

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