Patent madness


“Watch your step: If you’ve ever exercised your cat by having it chase the reflected spot of a laser pointer, you and kitty may be in violation of a bona fide U.S. patent. Don’t believe it? Take a gander at Patent No. 5,443,036, Method of Exercising a Cat, issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1995.” writes Lauren Weinstein in Wired News. Weinstein, like many others, points out how crazy the patent process is, and how it often dampens innovation. Indeed, the heart of the issue is the quality of the work of the US Patent and Trademark Office and its peers around the world. If they only grant focused and relevant patents, the problem would be minimized. Patent examiners get an average of 20 hours to review a patent, which is now often 30-40 pages long itself, and usually requires reviewing 50 or more articles. For example for complex biotechnology patents–applications for which are growing at 24% per year–this is insufficient.

In Living Networks I describe how when President George W. opened the way for federally funded research into stem cells, it came to light that a quiet biotech firm called Geron held patents that covered almost all embyonic cell lines existing at the time, as well as the methods to produce them. So in principle they own the results of almost any future research in the field. The USPTO’s attitude has been to grant patents easily and let them sort it out in the courts, but this means engaging in the intellectual property field requires substantial funds, and creates a domain in which intellectual property is blocked rather than allowed to flow freely. It’s easy to say patent processes must change. It’s harder to do. One thing that would help is if Congress would give back the $90 million it has taken away from the USPTO’s budget for each of the last three years.