A book on World War II teaches a lesson for today on innovation. In Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas E. Ricks (New York: Penguin, 2017), we learn about some of the reasons England struggled to defend itself effectively in dealing with Germany. A key problem discussed by Ricks was England’s poor state of preparation with inadequate machinery, feeble industrialization, weak supply chains, etc., that made it hard to fight a serious war and led to embarrassing disasters like the rapid loss of Singapore, their supposed fortress in southeast Asia. Close to home in Europe, Britain had a hard time just moving troops around — they often had to walk — and the Brits were amazed at how quickly their American cousins could mobilize when they came to the rescue. Why was England so poorly prepared?
England, as you will recall, was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, yet by the time of the War, they were awkwardly behind in many of the basic technologies they would need. How could this happen? Ricks comments are insightful:
Managed by family members more interested in reaping dividends than investing in new machinery and other gear, “British firms were unable to adopt modern, best-practice technology,” concluded business historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. As a consequence, Britain’s brilliant university research generally did not make the transition into factories. Britain had led the first Industrial Revolution of coal and steam power, but generally sat out the “Second Industrial Revolution” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, built around oil, chemicals, metals, electricity, electronics, and light machinery, such as automobiles. By the end of the 1940s, it would have neither an empire nor an economy capable of competing with those of other major powers. As Correlli Barnett put it, the reality was that by the time World War II ended, the British “had already written the broad scenario for Britain’s postwar descent to the place of fifth in the free world as an industrial power, with manufacturing output only two fifths of West Germany’s.” Interestingly, Barnett was the keeper of the Churchill Archives at Cambridge University from 1977 to 1995. [Ricks, pp. 203-204]
Something similar happened in China, which once led the world in innovation and GDP, but from the Qing Dynasty until the late 20th Century, in part due to apathetic leaders unwilling to invest in or even open the doors to innovation and technology, China missed out on much of the Industrial Revolution. Only through massive reform and exerted effort in recent decades has China begun its return to a position of global leadership in innovation, IP creation, and economic growth.
In the paper industry, which I’ve been close to for many years, it’s clear that the American paper industry has largely fallen into the same trap that nearly cost Britain its freedom and did cost many lives unnecessarily. The American paper industry has largely failed to invest in new technology and relies heavily on antiquated paper machines and pulp mills that are decades behind what we have in Asia (China and Japan in particular). Their slower, less efficient machines and less efficient plantations put them at a distinct cost disadvantage. Instead of taking steps to compete better, the US industry too often tries to rely on protective legislation to raise tariffs on imported paper and make everyone in the nation pay much more for their paper than they should. The real problem is not Chinese competition, but American businessmen falling into the same pattern that nearly cost Britain the war: focusing on immediate profit and dividends while neglecting the future.
Each industry, whatever it is, needs to build for the future with investment in innovation and a willingness to boldly cope with the threats and opportunities of disruptive innovation. If your industry is dominated with leaders who feel like they can just milk their business as a cache cow with no need to invest in the future, that industry will fail.
For those of us working with innovators seeking to build and grow much-needed businesses and bring new valuable new products to the world, it’s painful to survey the damage that has been done to the patent system in the United States over the past decade and the corresponding damage to innovation. Many factors have come together in a perfect storm of patent hostility, driven in part by rhetoric about dread “patent trolls” spread by Silicon Valley giants whose business models are threatened by the pesky patents of other parties but also by political hostility to pharma patents, perhaps because the unmanageable costs of Obamacare might be reduced somewhat if drug costs could be driven down by reducing the value of IP.
The hostility came in several waves. The American Invents Act created several new ways to gut patents, most particularly the Inter Partes Review (IPR), which would allow opponents and their allies to file endless actions against existing patents to wear down the owner and in nearly 90% of the cases so far, eventually eradicate key claims. There would also be a series of Supreme Court decisions such as the Alice decision that would make it easier for the USPTO to reject patents by declaring the invention to be “abstract.” What does “abstract” mean? The Supreme Court refused to define the term in their decision, giving examiners and courts a hammer they can swing any way they want. And then there would be a series of actions from the USPTO itself, headed by a former Google attorney highly sympathetic to the anti-patent sentiments of Silicon Valley, which went beyond the requirements of the law and of judicial decisions to exacerbate the hostility toward patents.
One of the most shocking aspects of the war on patents has been the discovery that the judges of the PTAB, the Patent Trials and Appeals Board the runs the IPR system, have no code of ethics beyond the basic requirements for any employee in the Dept. of Commerce. Thus, unlike judges in any other area, the judges of the PTAB can take cases from their former clients. General rules for Commerce employees requires a one-year buffer for cases with a potential conflict of interest, but for judges in the US judicial system, the distance must be much greater. In general, a judge simply should not take a case involving a former client regardless of how long ago the financial relationship ended. But with the scandalous lack of a judicial code of ethics for PTAB judges, questionable cases occur and with easily predicted results. Gene Quinn and Steve Brachman of IPWatchdog write forcefully on this scandal here and here.
The PTAB has been called the “death squad” of American patents, and some of its judges seem to relish that role.
Michelle Lee, the Google-tainted director of the USPTO, has at least been removed from that position, and many patent practitioners and patent seekers hope that the new leader will be free from heavy Silicon Valley influence and will take bold steps to curtail the damage being done to the US patent system. Meanwhile, many innovators are looking to other countries to develop their innovations, including places like China where IP is increasingly valued and supported. May the US catch up!
Many of the greatest inventions in America came from immigrants. See Steve Brachman’s article, “American innovation has been fueled by immigrant inventors” at IP Watchdog. Nearly all of our inventions, in fact, came from people who were either immigrants or descendants of immigrants (sometimes we seem to forget our own roots!). Immigrants with skills and a desire to succeed often become great entrepreneurs that create jobs and wealth that benefit the rest of us. Today, unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding about immigrants.
Sadly, many people with great innovation potential and good education find legal immigration is nearly impossible or takes many years. They are punished with unreasonably high barriers to entry. Making the barriers greater for them will only hurt the economy and our innovation potential.
The Sovereign Man Explorer newsletter (from Sovereignman.com) of Feb. 5, 2017 has an excellent article on immigration to consider:
Everyone Loves a Good Ol’ Immigrant Witch Hunt!
Republicans aren’t the only ones who want to limit immigration. While democrats are crying foul over Trump’s policies towards immigrants, they have initiated a little foreigner witch hunt of their own.
A whole bunch of Democrats in Congress introduced a bill that would have the Secretary of State, and other federal agency directors, create a list of foreigners believed to have manipulated the election, or tampered with American political parties.
It would give the government power to freeze their assets, and bar them from entering the United States.
And this would happen based solely on the investigation and recommendation of the State Department; no due process.
What this means:
This is some pretty weak criteria for having your assets frozen and being barred from entering America. True, Trump’s plan to ban all immigrants from particular countries is extreme as well, but at least he doesn’t plan on freezing immigrants’ assets.
This essentially could rob immigrants’ of the products of their labor, while stifling their international mobility, just because their name ended up on a list.
How much evidence is required to end up on the list? We don’t know. Can they get off the list, have their travel allowance returned, and have their assets unfrozen? We don’t know. Will this be used politically against enemies of politicians? We don’t know.
This is a vague and ill defined bill which gives more power the the Feds to arbitrarily harass immigrants. And it proves this attitude is held by both major American political parties.
Innovation thrives when there is certainty and an environment where the risks of developing a new business or other innovation can bring returns. When there is the risk that government with the stroke of a pen can seize assets without due process or otherwise take everything by changing the rules of the game, there is uncertainty that chokes innovation. Scaring away talented innovators and threatening them with the loss of assets for supporting a political opponent will leave all of us worse off.
Of course, a government so out of control that it will seize immigrants’ assets for arbitrary reasons is a threat to all of its citizens as well. It is the ultimate source of innovation fatigue and worse.
Be careful about the vehicle you’ve been driving. As sturdy, tangible, useful, and inventive as it looks to you, it may turn out to be merely an abstraction, perhaps nothing more than the mere idea of “transportation” or “going places,” making it unworthy of the thousands of patents protecting its numerous technologies — if the USPTO and America’s elite judges get their way. An abstract automobile? You don’t want to be caught dead driving one. Unfortunately, since the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) just ruled that an MRI machine is abstract and thus not patentable under the odious and vague principles of the Supreme Court’s recent Alice decision, it could be that automobiles and virtually every other machine under the sun could be next on the anti-patent chopping block. Your trusty Toyota or your faithful Ford are about to go abstract on you, courtesy of the USPTO. Look out.
In the PTAB’s elite view, as Gene Quinn explains, all the physical wizardry of the mighty MRI machine as claimed in a recent patent application for an improved MRI is just an abstract idea based on the abstraction of “classification.” It defies logic and defies the requirements of the Alice decision and the USPTO’s rules for applying Alice, but the PTAB has become a patent munching zombie that doesn’t seem bound by logic or law. They are one of the strongest forces promoting innovation fatigue. Many innovators are just giving up or going to other nations where IP rights are more meaningful.
The anti-patent forces that have taken hold of far too many influential posts in America view property rights and especially intellectual property rights as a barrier to the ideal society they envision. If only we could get rid of patents, they seem to think, drug prices would fall and Obamacare, for example, would not be such a disaster. But the bounty some intellectuals promise by weakening property rights is an illusion, for without IP rights, what is the incentive to take on the risks and costs of innovation if you cannot benefit from the occasional successes that come from your uncertain work? If your hit product can be taken and marketed by others who did not have to spend so much time and money developing it, then the inventor is often at a competitive disadvantage to everyone else. Why bother?
America’s war on patents is a war on the future of innovation. It’s a war we cannot afford to lose.
One of the great challenges in intellectual property work is translation of foreign documents. Translating between Chinese and English is especially difficult for machine translation, where strange or even nonsense results are common due to the complexity of Chinese and the difficult legal and technical phrasing that is common in patents. Google Translate is quite poor in this context, and the outstanding translation tools at Baidu.com also generally don’t work well for patents.
Wonderfully, WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization) has come to the rescue with WIPO Translate, a machine translation tool that has been especially designed for patents. The results have been stunningly good in my testing so far, vastly outperforming prior systems.
WIPO Translate can handle a variety of language pairs both ways, all involving English and either Chinese, French, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Only about one paragraph at a time can be translated, so you can’t yet dump an entire patent all at once into WIPO translate.
In using WIPO Translate, you can select a technical field to help focus the translation and improve the chances of the appropriate terminology being used.
As I watch the decline of the US patent system, I have to marvel at how much loss the world is facing through the crushing barriers to innovation and job creation in the U.S. Once the beacon of innovation for the world, now would-be innovators are afraid to take the risks required to bring their new products and services to the market because they cannot get the protection that should be theirs when IP rights are strong. If a Google or Microsoft takes their invention, the great equalizer of patents will not be there for them.
In the name of advancing innovation, Congress created a monster called the American Invents Act. This was done without input from the small inventors and entrepreneurs of the world, where most innovation and job creation occurs. It was based on input from the giants like Google who despise patents (other people’s patents, that is). But thanks to the AIA, there is now a host of new ways to destroy patents and they are being used with startling effectiveness.
A key component of the war on patents is the new “patent death squad,” that Patent Trial and Appeal Board. Based on the statistics from their work, there is little hope left for patent owners. See Gene Quinn’s excellent report, “Misleading PTO statistics hide a hopelessly broken PTAB” at IPWatchdog.com. Startling, troubling, but accurate.
The war on innovation also includes action from the courts, especially the Supreme Court, which has given judges bold new weapons to invalidate patents by calling their subject matter “abstract” — a deadly word that is vague, which the Supreme Court has not even attempted to define. The possibilities for patent destruction under the Supreme Court’s new Alice test are immense, and I’ve seen some great innovations blown apart with that weapon.
The USPTO, now led by a Google attorney, has repeatedly taken a hostile attitude in how they interpret laws and create policies regarding patent examination. The results are shameful.
The politicians and their gargantuan backers are winning the war against IP and innovation in the US. It’s time for Congress to pare back the damage they have done with the AIA, and for champions of innovation to rise and demand a more equitable system.
China’s housing market is in a bubble, in my opinion, for it seems to display some of the same excesses and questionable behavior that the United States had in real estate shortly before the big subprime mortgage crash in 2007. We have a flood of newly created cash flowing into the market at low interest rates for easy loans. We find unusual business models popping up to exploit the cheap credit and drive up housing prices and housing demand. And we will see rapid changes occur as the bubble pops in some way.
Easy credit from the banks of China and abundant new cash from China’s equivalent of “quantitative easing” have been used in an attempt to stimulate the markets, just as has been done with little success in the U.S., Japan, the European Union and Zimbabwe (before their cataclysmic crash with hyperinflation and economic chaos). Initially much of the new money being created was being used to drive the Chinese stock market. As that bubble popped, rich Chinese looked again to real estate as the traditional safe way to make lots of money. In popular cities, home prices have shot up. In Shenzhen, housing prices show a 57% increase over last year. That’s a ridiculous rate showing something is wrong.
Owners of apartments until recently were not too concerned about rent since they real money were making was coming from rapidly appreciating property values in cities like Shanghai. But with fear that recent rises were no longer going to be sustainable, rental prices are now getting more emphasis. This appears to be driven in part by the very large-scale actions of a giant force, the real estate company Lianjia (United Homes), according to a friend of ours who is a real estate agent. Lianjia has managed to obtained huge capital reserves that it has used to buy up many former competitors, giving them a stranglehold on the real estate market. They are also using large amounts of capital to make loans to customers who otherwise might not be able to afford the down payment of a new property. Further, they are actively working with property owners to push for significantly higher rental values. This increases their commissions and also make landlords happy.
In spite of China’s slowing economy, many renters are reporting significant jumps in rent this year. Our landlord, for example, wanted to increase our rent by 33%. Since we take good care of the place and don’t make many demands, though negotiation, she was willing to sacrifice to help us by just asking for a 24% raise in rent instead. But she has agents from Lianjia calling her and saying she could be getting 33% or even 40% more. This seems to be happening all over the city.
In looking for new, more affordable apartments, my wife found that when she went to the nearby Lianjia office and asked for places with a price similar to what we have been paying the past year, they said it wasn’t possible and that we would have to pay a lot more to get a place with the features we now have. When we went to one of the increasingly hard-to-find non-Lianjia dealers, we learned that there certainly were places in our price range that could meet our needs. While my wife and a non-Lianjia agent were looking at one apartment priced at 14,000 RMB, a Lianjia agent came to the same place with a Chinese girl who was looking to rent. She liked the place and asked how much it was. My wife heard the Lianjia agent say it was listed at 18,000, a full 4,000 RMB above the actual asking price. The girl was shocked and wondered how it could be so expensive. She turned to the agent my wife was with and asked what price he had been told. Not wanting to make another agent lose face, our agents just nodded his head and said it was 18,000. But this apparently was Lianjia’s attempt to drive up the price, deceiving a customer. Ugly.
By offering easy loans to customers who might not otherwise be able to get one, and by collaborating with landlords to drive prices up, the rental market in Shanghai has been booming at a crazy pace, the kind of pace that looks like a classic bubble. The housing bubble is already popping in Hong Kong, with a significant drop now in housing prices since the Sept. 2015 peak, said to currently be in “free fall.” That cold front may soon sweep northward to cities like Shanghai.
In bubble economies, it’s hard to tell precisely when the insanity will stop. With abundant injections of cash and other policy actions, the government could keep driving up prices for a while, but eventually (what, two more months? maybe six? a year?) economic reality has to kick in, and when it does, it can be painful and sudden. The bigger the steps taken to keep the bubble going, the worse the pain will be and the longer the correction will take.
When cheap mortgages to unqualified buyers begin to fail and threaten the banks, we could be in for a repeat of the subprime mortgage crisis the US faced a few years ago. When property owners begin to see that real estate values can drop significantly, they may look to the ultimate way of preserving capital in risky times: precious metals, particularly gold and silver. A dramatic pop of any kind in China could send shock waves throughout the world.
This is a good time to be prepared. Get out of debt. Have cash on hand to keep you going for two or three months in case there is a run on the banks (the available currency in the US is a tiny fraction of the vast amount of digital money that has been created, and if banks fail or are hacked, turning those digits into something you can spend may be a challenge that faces many delays, not to mention massive threats of hacking. Physical cash on hand may be an important part of your survival kit. Food and other supplies, and some gold and silver coins or bullion, may be a good idea.
The great challenge in innovation is not coming up with a discovery or great invention. The challenge is in making it stick, in nurturing it and growing it so that it spreads and changes the world. Numerous antibodies and barriers are ready to snuff out every great idea, even when it offers a solution that the world is clamoring for. The story of scurvy in the British Navy, as shared in Chapter 10 of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, illustrates this principle.
Scurvy cost the lives of thousands of sailors and soldiers around the world for centuries. For the British Navy, that disease was one of the greatest challenges it faced. On long voyages, 30% or more of the crew might die from scurvy. Through confusion and error among England’s educated elite regarding scurvy, misinformation about its cause and its cure would persist into the 20th century. However, there was credible medical information in the early 1600s pointing to citrus fruits as a key aid in preventing and curing the disease. [See Stephen R. Bown, SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).]
Physicians on land and at sea would later provide evidence in the mid-1700s that citrus or other fresh fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of scurvy, but this knowledge was not only ignored or resisted by those in the Navy, it was resisted by the mainstream European medical community who perpetrated a form of “strategy fatigue” by making a general understanding of the nature of disease their primary quest, being uninterested in “merely empirical” work aimed at curing a given disease. For example, the work in the 1730s of physician John Bachstrom in Holland pointing to fresh fruits and vegetables as the decisive cure for scurvy was dismissed by the medical community of his day, for he was “a mere empirick” in the eyes of his elite peers. [Kenneth J. Carpenter, The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 44-45.]
The adoption of the innovation of citrus fruit in treating scurvy took more than compelling evidence. It took someone with powerful connections to champion the innovation. This man was the prominent Scottish physician, Sir Gilbert Blane, who was only 4 years old when a detailed study on the cure for scurvy was published by James Lind in 1753 – only to be ignored for decades. (To be accurate, the information from Lind and others was obscured by terrible confusion about physiology and disease, and continued to point to the dangers of various “airs” and climatic factors as key contributors to scurvy, obscuring the fact that it was a nutritional deficiency.) [See James Lind, A Treatise of the Scurvy. in Three Parts. Containing an Inquiry Into the Nature, Causes and Cure, of that Disease. Together with a Critical and Chronological View of What Has Been Published on the Subject, Edinburgh: Printed by Sands, Murray and Cochran for A Kincaid and A Donaldson. Portions of the original reproduced online by the James Lind Library. Also see Carpenter, op. cit., pp. 51-52.]
In London, Blane became the private physician to Lord Rodney and sailed with him to the West Indies in 1779. Blane’s efforts to keep sailors healthy were increasingly successful, and through his connections to Rodney and others naval leaders, Blane was able to give lectures to senior leaders and gain support for improved practices across the entire navy. Drawing upon past work and a further demonstration of his own, he would introduce compelling evidence to naval leaders that lime juice prevented scurvy, leading the Navy to adopt lime juice in its global operations beginning in 1795. [David Nash Ford, “Biographies: Sir Gilbert Blane (1749-1834),” Royal Berkshire History (Finchampstead, UK: Nash Ford Publishing, 2005).] For nearly two centuries, the British Navy had been closed to a safe, inexpensive innovation from outsiders that solved what may have been its most vexing and costly problem. The citrus “sales pitch” fell on deaf ears until someone with the right connections to senior management could deliver it. It’s a tragic lesson of the dangers of closed innovation, of organizational rigidity, of devaluing the work of innovators, of listening to the wrong voices, of “not invented here,” and the importance of delivering the story of an innovation to the right people, through those who have the right contacts. It doesn’t need to be this way, but it often is. Thousands of needless deaths over centuries: welcome to the fruits of innovation fatigue.
Incidentally, innovation-related lessons from scurvy continued long after 1795. Though citrus juice was adopted in the British Navy, the nature of the disease and the reason for the cure were still unknowns. Without careful efforts to preserve knowledge and best practices, erosion can quickly occur. Thus when the Royal Navy undertook arctic expeditions in the 19th century, the leaders took with them a belief that good hygiene, good morale, and regular exercise prevented scurvy. Not surprisingly, scurvy was a recurring problem in these voyages. In the 20th century, when Robert Scott trekked into the Antarctic, tainted canned food was believed to be a cause of scurvy. The connection between vitamin C and scurvy was not discovered until 1932. Likewise, we have seen many organizations lose best practices, healthy processes, and even technical capabilities and knowledge when efforts weren’t taken to preserve and pass on what they had.
(The above is based on an section of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, Chapter 10.)
At an IP Conference in Shanghai yesterday, I discussed the current decline in IP rights in the United States with a US attorney who was speaking on recent changes in US patent law. Like many in the IP profession, he recognizes how painful the loss is in the U.S. and how bad this will be for the future of innovation there. As he’s learned more about China, he also recognizes, as many of us here do, how strong China’s current IP trajectory is. As IP law and practice is strengthened here, innovation will be strengthened and further incentivized. End result: China wins. In the innovation battle and future IP battles between East and West, China will take the lead. That’s my prediction.
Here’s one little example. Look at the incredible machines China can build. Here you see a brilliant example of innovation and the spirit of the new China as a Chinese company tackles the ancient problem of building bridges, an area where China has ancient strengths and now a modern lead:
The steady loss of IP rights in the United States is alarming. Big companies like Google and Apple tend to preserve or expand their market power and in IP battles, they tend to get their way through their money, influence, friends in high places, and market clout. But for lone inventors and smaller companies, the IP landscape has become forlorn. The patents that were essential for establishing a business and protecting themselves from outright theft (including theft from the big companies that tend to get their way) are now much harder to obtain. Once obtained, they are much harder to enforce. Patent opponents are now given broad new powers to invalidate patents. Incredibly, the IPR system (inter-partes review) that allows a challenger to easily attack an already issued patent is resulting in nearly 80% of challenged patent claims being found invalid.
What this means is that the USPTO, charged with the responsibility of issuing only valid patents, after all the rejections and challenges they give to inventors in the patent prosecution process, is essentially saying that their quality control process is so bad that they have goofed 80% of the time and issued claims that never should have been allowed. Something is seriously wrong here.
The vast new uncertainties in America’s IP system is crushing innovation. Innovators are wondering why they should file in the U.S. Some are going to other nations to launch their business. Others are abandoning hope. This comes at a dark time on the economic landscape when we need innovation and hope more than ever before. Giving Google more power than ever to crush competitive patents is not the answer. Eliminating software and knowledge-economy-based inventions as patentable subject matter is not the answer. Allowing patents to be easily invalidated is not the answer.
Americans need to demand a return to respect for IP rights and create an innovation-friendly society again.