A story by Jon Van describes the growing backlog of nanotechnology patent applications:
As the time it takes to process patent applications now averages almost four years, double the time it took in 2004, nanotech entrepreneurs are beginning to worry that their ability to raise money to develop products may be stifled.
It’s not just nanotech that’s feeling the pain:
Bruce Kisliuk, director of a patent-examining group at the patent office, said the agency does face a growing backlog across all areas. “We have 700,000 applications in the pipeline,” Kisliuk said. “Some are for nanotech, some not. This backlog isn’t unique to nanotech.”
The problem isn’t just the sheer number of applications:
While nanopatents are getting more complex, that’s also true of everything, Kisliuk said. “Technology generally has grown more complex,” he said. “A century ago, a third of the patents we issued concerned bicycles.”
Which brings up the question of whether the system is sustainable as technology accelerates and gets even more complex. It’s an arms race between well-funded private sector attorneys and government patent examiners. As soon as the latter get properly trained, they can make more money by becoming the former. How can correct decisions be made given this built-in imbalance?
And it matters. These are 20-year monopolies being granted by the patent offices. Mistakes can be serious and costly, inhibiting investment. And that matters because, as regular readers know, nanotech looks very likely to bring major new cancer treatments, and later, “zero waste” manufacturing and excellent environmental remediation technologies.
Some nanotech proponents would prefer some or all nanotechnologies — particularly those invented using taxpayer dollars — to be either public domain or under an open-source style license. But slow decisions from the patent office don’t further this goal either. They just create uncertainty.
So is there anyone in favor of this mess? Those who are so anti-technology that they will even forgo an end to cancer, and give up the prospect of truly clean manufacturing, might approve of the situation.
What’s the answer? First, let’s rethink the 20 year term. That’s even longer than it was 200 years ago, when inventions diffused much more slowly. Then let’s grapple seriously with the complexity issue. Is the current system viable long-term? If not, what makes more sense? —Christine