Patent perspiration not inspiration

Little irks me more than the current state of US patent law. It stifles innovation and encourages patent trolls, the most famous being Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures. The main problem is that we are allowing patents for the wrong thing. Currently, patents are awarded for innovative ideas, which means you can try to patent fairly obvious ideas like a device that converts optical images into digital information, which amazingly enough is owned by one patent troll who is trying to extort money out of anyone who has ever used a scanner, including nonprofits (see here). This American Life had an episode devoted to this topic (see here). What we should do instead is to patent the effort and cost sunk into developing an idea into a product. Alex Tabarrok has been writing about this topic for a long time and has a nice paper giving the economic reasons of why this would be better (see here for reprint). You should only get patent protection in proportion to the costs you have incurred in developing the idea.

Ideas are cheap; turning them into successful businesses is the hard part. Me, and probably everyone else, had the idea for Google Glass years if not decades ago. I had no idea how to make it work, nor did I put any effort in trying to do so. I just thought it would be great to have a projection screen built into glasses. Actually, my full idea was that it would project an image onto the retina with the focus set at infinity so I wouldn’t have to strain my eyes to read it. I don’t think anyone should be able to patent such an idea. We should encourage lots of companies to come up with ways of implementing eyeglass projection systems and let them battle it out in the marketplace. In some sense, fashion should be our model. You can’t patent fashion so designers must constantly innovate to keep ahead of the imitators. If anything, there is too much innovation in fashion. Given that we are now on the wrong side of the “Tabarrok Curve“, the argument that abolishing patents would stifle innovation is no longer valid. This is one issue that both liberals and libertarians should agree on. If we are to get any laws passed at all this congressional term, we should get patent reform.


2 thoughts on “Patent perspiration not inspiration

  1. I’m pessimistic. Just patent law alone is a billion dollar industry.

    The US has been pursuing a strong lobby to force patents down the throat of the whole planet.

    On the plus side, if the US were to let go patents, then the whole world might follow.

    Note: the nice things about patents is that they are strictly limited. This means that it is easy to phase them out.


  2. I wasn’t calling for a complete elimination of patents, just one based on sunk cost rather than idea. Reforms along these lines could possibly get the big tech and pharma firms on board who may want to avoid all the lawsuits and dispense with collecting patents for defensive purposes. After all, a patent troll basically destroyed, or at least distracted, RIM. On the other hand, maybe they like it the way it is since excessive litigation is a barrier to entry for small companies.


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