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Patent office arms race will hurt nanotechnology

There’s an arms race between government patent offices and patent filers assisted by private law firms. The folks who work for the former get paid a lot less than the those who work for the latter. This leads to a continual drain away from government review of patent applications toward private generation of patent applications. A San Jose Mercury News blog entry explains more of the problem, which will affect all areas of technology but especially new, complex, multidisciplinary ones such as nanotechnology:

Dilbert is alive and well and managing the Patent office

The government can’t hire new examiners fast enough to keep up with the old examiners who are throwing in the towel. That’s the cherry on top of a report from the Government Accountability Office published Thursday that says, “Increases in the volume and complexity of patent applications have lengthened the amount of time it takes the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to process them”…

The GAO found that from 2002 through 2006, one patent examiner left for nearly every two the agency hired. “This represents a significant loss to the agency because 70 percent of those who left had been at the agency for less than 5 years and new patent examiners are primarily responsible for the actions that remove applications from the backlog.”

While the new peer review process being tested now should help, it seems to me that this arms race may be unwinnable in the long term, just due to increasing complexity of technologies and patent applications, including in nanotech. Regardless of whether you view patents as beneficial or harmful, delays and uncertainty may be the worst of all worlds, economically speaking. —Christine

3 Responses to “Patent office arms race will hurt nanotechnology”

  1. Phillip Huggan Says:

    How about PO’s accrediting “partial patents”? That is, letting a complicated interdisciplinary patent proceed tentatively, with the patent office reserving the right to question the validity of the patent at a later date using more skilled patent examiners.
    Another variable to adjust would be the patent price, a development that would be anathnaemia to industrializing cutting edge fields.
    Tax breaks for corporations/individuals who volunteer staff/time for patent examinations where no conflict of interest exists?

    A wiki-patents where the editors have Ph.D’s?

  2. Phillip Huggan Says:

    Giving this some more thought…
    This problem seems inherently self-limiting in that the complexity of an innovation is itself a barrier; no need to patent an idea that is so hard and multi-faceted as to be unlikely to be copied. Trade secrets work fine too.
    Two public goods patents provide is a greater incentive to spend R+D dollars for an item that can’t be pirated for 20 years, and also providing an industrial product library for all. The latter utility could be expanded if a first-mover advantage is given: Allow a given patent existing liberties. But if a second actor patents something that includes the initial patent and beyond, and the patent is so complex as to dwarve the faculties of the P.O., have the second actor pay the cost to the patent office of hiring independant consultants/engineers/scientists to verify the second actor is not merely acting as a “legal leech”. The net process would be an increase in initial vague patents, with a reduction in further specific patents. I don’t know how to best penalize initial patents filed to be too broad. Perhaps reducing their lifespan?

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