Most of us will agree that the invention of the patent system and the modern copyright laws was beneficial for the growth and prosperity of our society in the past two centuries. The question is if they will be so in the future.
Some years ago I noticed that the exponential curve showing the increasing number of patents granted each year didn’t at all correspond to the curves describing economic growth for either countries, consumers or businesses. It is of course because the main driving force behind the huge increase in patents and all the underlying research and development is the result of our societies structural change towards innovation and product development. It has nothing to do with consumer demand anymore. If it ever had. The increasing number of patents corresponds much better to the increasing number of researchers and engineers multiplied with the increased knowledge transfer due to new communications technologies. Innovation and product development seems to have become a self playing piano. And since an increasingly larger group of the work is trained to be engineers this will be continuing for many years yet – regardless if it is needed or not.
What problems can this cause? The sheer numbers of patents that the patent offices have to manage is just one concrete problem. Rudolf Peritz, an antitrust scholar, has showed that the patent office in the US doesn’t seem able to manage the flood anymore. Many patents being granted is poorely researched by people not having the required knowledge nor time. The trial of validity of the patent is thus passed down the line to the court rooms, where the complex problem problems will show up. With limited resources and an exponentially growing number of applications in a growing number of fields this is not strange at all.
What can be the side effect of this? The more patents not resulting in products or services that is possible to protect, the closer we will come to a patent inflation which may render patents gradually irrelevant. It has already happened in the software industry where it is much more important for a developer to, as quick as possible, implement the idea and try make money on it before somebody else copies it.
From the bubbling Internet there is of course always proposals on who to achieve a working system. One suggestion is this: why not use the new logic of distributed social organizations i.e. peer-to-peer logic to create a scalable patent system? This is suggested in Peer to Patent: A Modest Proposal.
But maybe the problem is bigger than just a broken system? Maybe the idea of owning and controlling an idea is only working when there is a certain percentage of the total activities that are idea creating. If everybody have the equipment and available resources to innovate in their homes and then order 100+ copies of the product from a factory somewhere on the globe, how will the patent system cope with that? It will be the commoditization of innovation. We have already been walking on that path for a while and desktop publishing is just one area that shows the direction. Soon we may also be able to manufacture things directly in our homes as we do today with documents. (read my earlier post on The Desktop Factory – in Swedish)