Oct
12

Innovation Fatigue Through Bad Patent Law: The Innovation Burdens of the Leahy-Smith “American Invents Act”

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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:

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:

(d) DEFINITION.–

(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.”

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