Archive for October, 2011
On Sept. 16, President Obama signed the Leahy-Smith “America Invents Act” which supposedly will strengthen innovation and improve our patent system. It’s a radical change in our patent system–one that seems to have been drafted by people who don’t fully understand patents or innovation.
Does this bill promote innovation as advertized? What about that 15% rate hike for patent fees–a new 15% tax on the IP that entrepreneurs need. That’s the most immediate and obvious change. Guess which way that increased burden tilts the balance? Economics 101 suggests that making innovation more expensive is not likely to make it more abundant. But Congress may know better.
Congress apparently recognizes that we have a problem with the patent system, where huge backlogs exist that cause enormous delay and expense for inventors. The backlog and efficiency problem they are allegedly fixing, however, does not require all the unintended consequences of revising patent law but simply improving the administration of the PTO. For example, if Congress would refrain from siphoning off many millions of dollars of PTO funds each year, effectively taxing innovation and crushing the ability of the PTO to properly staff itself and keep its systems up to date, then the backlog could be easily resolved, in my opinion. Unfortunately, we seem to have another case of politicians proposing costly solutions that won’t solve the costly problems that they caused. As long as Congress can redirect funds received by the PTO, the administrative problems at the PTO will not be resolved by changes in patent law. (See “Patent Reform–A Tax on Innovation?” and “Let the Patent Office Keep Its Money.“)
While probably not solving the problems it allegedly fixes, the America Invents Act clearly raises a host of new problems that may lead to unpredictable results in costly litigation for years to come. The radical changes involving who gets patents and what is prior art use confusing language that strips the bill of the “certainty” that its proponents allegedly sought to restore in the system. See excellent reviews of the controversies in these sources:
- Joshua D. Sarnoff, “Derivation and Prior Art Problems with the New Patent Act,” 2011 Patently-O Patent Law Journal, http://www.patentlyo.com/files/sarnoff.2011.derivation.pdf.
- Eric Guttag, “Some More Heretical Thoughts on Strategies for Coping with First to File Under the America Invents Act,” IPWathdog.com, Oct. 5, 2011.
- Gene Quinn, “Prior Art Under America Invents: The USPTO Explains First to File,” IPWathdog.com, Oct. 4, 2011.
Harold C. Wegner of the respect form Foley and Lardner has published an analysis of the law (3rd edition, Sept. 29, 2011) which highlights its pervasive ambiguity due to poor drafting. This is a serious issue which will cloud patent law and hinder the quest for patent rights for years to come. Wegner also rules that the new law may increase backlogs because appeal judges will have to continue dealing with their heavy load of existing cases as well as take on added cases of “post-grant reviews” and other new administrative procedures (supplemental examination and transitional examination of business method patents) which are provided in the new law. The backlog is sure to increase and fees will be raised even more to cope. Meanwhile, the new post-grant review process has “dractonian” elements, as Wegner observes, that may further impede the ability of an inventor with a real invention to obtain a patent. Further, there are numerous details Wegner identifies in his 177-page text showing potential harm to “upstream” entities like universities and small inventors while benefiting those downstream entities that want to use the innovations of others for their business as cheaply as possible. I smell innovation fatigue.
In my view, the bill reflects fundamental ignorance about the nature of invention. The perplexing provisions on prior art highlight this. Years of litigation that will be needed to clarify what on earth is meant by the new prior art provisions as patent professionals already express exasperation over issues of derivation, inventorship, and prior art in the new law.
A crucial part of the ignorance here is on the nature of invention itself, amplifying the confusion created by the judiciary regarding what is patentable. Viewing business methods and software as somehow being non-technical, in spite of typically involving highly technical systems and tools, opens many cans of worms. If something is novel, useful, and non-obvious, why should it not be patentable if it involves computers and electronic data? But the judicial backlash against vaguely defined “business method patents” has been institutionalized in this new law, where business method patents dealing with the financial services industry (thank you, Wall Street lobbyists) have been given special treatment, allowing Wall Street to have a special route to invalidate patents that otherwise have survived basic prosecution, reexamination, and prior litigation. Section 18 of the law describes how those being sued by a “covered business method patent” can have a special hearing to invalidate the patent. That section includes this gem to define that key term:
(1) IN GENERAL.–For purposes of this section, the term “covered business method patent” means a patent that claims a method or corresponding apparatus for performing data processing or other operations used in the practice, administration, or management of a financial product or service, except that the term does not include patents for technological inventions.
(2) REGULATIONS.–To assist in implementing the transitional proceeding authorized by this subsection, the Director shall issue regulations for determining whether a patent is for a technological invention.
The drafters of this law apparently view “business method” inventions as distinct from “technological inventions.” If science were to rule, it would be clear that one cannot clearly distinguish between “technological inventions” and a claim involving data processing or management of a financial product or service when technology is involved. Why is a new use of a computer to advance financial services not “technological”? Why is it a less worthy invention than a new use of a polymer or of amide chemistry or of coherent photons? This probably relates to the non-scientific but widely held view among judges and politicians that information, data, and electronic signals are somehow not part of the physical universe and should be viewed as abstractions rather than concrete entities that relate to physical measures such as entropy and require tangible matter and real energy to manipulate. Note that “technological” is undefined, perhaps because it cannot reasonably be defined in this unreasonable provision of an fatigue-generating law. I wish the best of luck to the Director of the PTO in clarifying this opaque miasma.
The richest innovations transforming our era involve inventions rooted in the processing and manipulation of information and these innovations must be encouraged and rewarded, not excluded from patent coverage because some failing but well-connected ‘too big to fail” entities don’t want patents from others to stand in their uncreative way. The AIA clearly shows the power of those Wall Street entities in guiding legislation and giving them special breaks, breaks that will do anything but strengthen innovation. Like much of the rest of the law, it’s directed at fixing the wrong things in the wrong way. May wiser heads quickly repeal or massively revise this legislation before backlogs explode and innovation fatigue is further spread across the US system.
Meanwhile, from my vantage point in Shanghai, I see China increasingly strengthening incentives for innovation and strengthening patent rights. This bodes well for the competitiveness of China in the future. America will soon be wondering how to catch up. How about some real patent reform down the road?
For a rather optimistic but definitely helpful overview of the impact of the AIA on patent practice, see PLI’s page, “America Invents Act: How the New Law Impacts Your Clients and Your Patent Practice.”
One of the biggest problems from economies directed by bureaucrats rather than a free market is that the bureaucrats don’t just spend money on foolish areas that don’t make sense economically, but their diversion of funds causes money to dry up where it is needed. Thus the housing bubble, created by government intervention and waste, resulted in billions of dollars being lost for unnecessary home building when it could have been helping small business grow. When government creates artificial markets and bubbles that are sure to pop, there is a lot of hidden carnage in addition to the obvious disasters one sees down the road. A top victim of bureaucratic excess and meddling in the economy is innovation.
Right now, for example, the government continues to direct billions into solar energy in the name of advancing innovation, while simultaneously increasing the cost of patent protection for all innovators by about 15% due to the harmful new patent legislation that was just signed into law. Government interventions in the field of energy are often likewise tailored to increase the cost of energy to consumers in order to achieve political objectives that make little economic sense. We have not yet learned from the Solyndra scandal but continue to misdirect billions into areas with simply no hope of being economically competitive. The problem, again, is not just that those projects will fail. The deeper problem is that the innovators who really could make a difference are less likely to gain access to capital and less likely to be noticed in the market because of the artificial barriers they will face. The market is being skewed and real innovation by real entrepreneurs, the kind of innovation that can succeed and make economic sense, is likely to suffer as a result.
One of the mysteries of the current economy is why so little capital is going into business investment now in spite of all the billions being dumped into the economy. Part of the problem is that the artificially low interest rates being set by the Fed create an easy, low-risk way for banks to make money at our expense. They can borrow money from the government for almost free and then simply buy treasuries to collect the interest. When a risk-free cash cow is created this way, why should they want to make money the risky, market-based way by investing in businesses that can fail? But this cash cow distorts the economy and makes innovation more difficult in the long run. Innovation fatigue.
Want less innovation fatigue? Let’s not pretend that bureaucrats in DC know which innovations deserve billions of dollars. Let the market decide. And ditto for interest rates. Get the Fed out of that equation and let the market set the cost of money.