The patent law in the US is one that the country is justifiably proud of. Over decades it has nurtured and rewarded inventors for inventing things that improve the lives of their fellow beings by granting the inventors a limited time monopoly over the uses of their inventions.
But it seems like the pendulum has swung too far to the other side. The range of innovation that is now addressed by patent law is vast and extends to things like business methods. The duration for which the inventor has monopoly rights to exploit his invention keeps going up (now 17 years).
Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) recently wrote a piece where he talks about the need to reign in the patent law. In a recent ruling a federal court ruled that an existing patent that simply links elevated homocysteine to vitamin B-12 will stand. Just to be clear, this patent is not about a novel test to check for elevated homocysteine. It is simply the causal link between it and B-12, which is a natural phenomenon in the human body. And the court is allowing the patent on it.
Earlier this week, Netflix sued Blockbuster for patent infringement. The patents are on its business methods of unlimited rentals with no late fees and a ‘range of automated interaction with its customers’. Now I am no friend of Blockbuster and actually think Netflix has reached its dominant position in online DVD rentals through grit and gumption. They deserve every bit of what they have achieved so far. But do they deserve 17 years of untramelled access to the online rental market for some hohum ways of interacting electronically with customers? I don’t think so. An earlier and bigger brouhaha on a similar award of a business method and software patent was Amazon’s 1-click ordering.
These may be one-off exceptions and don’t necessarily prove anything. But if you look at the facts, US patent law (and other IP laws like copyright laws) have become looser, more wide-ranging and give the owner of the patent longer exclusive protection. This, it is claimed, encourages innovation.
But it doesn’t. All innovation is accretive. All creativity is remix. Great inventors stand on the shoulders of inventors before whose inventions allow them to see further. Restricting the use of an ever-widening range of patents for longer reduces innovation because new inventors will not have free access to the inventions. Businesses will spend too much time trying to figure out what to patent or how to side-step others’ patents.
In some industries like healthcare, the upfront time and costs of FDA approval make it hard for the inventor to commercialize a patent quickly. But in most of the world of commerce, 17 years is many lifetimes. The speed of business is faster than at any other time. A shorter period of patent protection should be very doable. Jeff Bezos had some very good suggestions back in 2000 when the 1-click ordering patent controversy broke.
The patent law needs some serious attention from Congress. Otherwise, be prepared to see poorer inventors and richer lawyers.