Patents in the future

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)

4 thoughts on “Patents in the future

  1. I agree that I was fuzzy about the concept of innovation and didn’t make a difference between innovation itself and realization of the X which innovations was about. After thinking for it for a minute I would argue that both is happening, but maybe at a different speed.

    It is evident that the time lag between idea and the realized idea is continuously becoming shorter. But I also see that we

    1) are training more and more people to be abstract thinkers at higher levels (even it isn’t as successful as we would like)
    2) are increasing the communication possibilities which allow this growing elite to be exposed to all kinds of ideas and innovation
    3) are more and more fancy uniqueness and small scale creativity – especially since our organizations are evidently not able to cope with more creativity than what is happening in the R&D department

    Today everybody will be a writer, but everybody don’t have necessary qualities to be a famous write. The blog supports the theory of “the long tail” which means that almost everybody can be a writer for their own small niche group.

    I think the next step will be that every small group will have their own inventor for their small niche needs.

  2. This is interesting indeed. Right, there’s a speed difference.
    And even more interestingly, there’s interaction between the two, in that innovation increases the speed at which innovation realization is commoditized. Perhaps the reason for the higher speed of innovation realization commoditization (ha!) compared to just innovation commoditization is because there’s no significant feedback in the other direction yet (even if case 2 above is certainly fueled by technology).

  3. Nothing has impeded innovation more than the patent and copyright law.

    Today “Intellectual Property” has a net negative effect on innovation thanks to what some call “The Chilling Effect”.

    All laws since the inception of copyright nearly 300 years ago have continually strengthened the hand of those with large armies of lawyers at the expense of smaller companies and individual inventors incapable of defending themselves against the scurrilous lawsuits of corporations.

    But there is hope for reform. Have a look at the 14+14 movement. This might be the best thing to happen to technological / creative protection since its conception under the Statute of Queen Anne.

    The other side of the coin is the rapid growth of the Creative Commons. It’s conceivable that as corporations attempt to lock up more and more cultural progress, the free-to-share movement will usurp the corporates through its ability to more rapidly innovate. Check out this article:People Own Ideas.

    Creativity always builds on the past. Those who control the past, control the future.

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