Innovation: It’s Time to Rethink Patents

Patented innovations have literally changed all our lives. Everything from the lightbulb, to the telephone, to Bluetooth, to RSA encryption (which came out of MIT and is named for the initials of the three inventors). The patent process, however, isn’t as “simple” as coming up with the idea for the lightbulb! It can be extremely complex and time-consuming (tough to navigate without lawyers). It can be expensive (those lawyers again), and there are often numerous delays in processing time, and then there’s something else.  The concept or idea that you thought of yesterday on the West Coast, I thought of today on the East Coast, completely independently. But you get the worldwide rights to it? It doesn’t make sense.

There are two principal and completely opposite moral philosophies on patents. First, “the natural rights view” sees an innovation as simply belonging to its creator. Whoever thought of it first. The opposite philosophy is the “public rights view.” In this view, knowledge and ideas belong in the public domain—for all to discuss, use, and build on. In this philosophy, just because an individual, or party, was first to discover something, doesn’t mean that individual gains ownership over it. 

Somewhere between these two extremes is room for a new system.  An opportunity to rethink the process. 

I have a patent. The story of how it came about is comical. It’s a patent about time zones on maps. Over twenty years later, I was in St. George, Utah, for the World Championship Ironman competition. I was practicing, and my watch said that it was an hour later than it really was. I thought I was late, so I had to run. But, actually, my watch had just switched to the nearby time zone, and I was never late at all.  How could this happen? The answer was my patent, which used a general approximation of where the time zone lines are.

Back then, I was thinking that it didn’t matter too much, because people in local time zones know where they live; it didn’t really matter that much if it flipped and flopped while I was visiting the few areas where this might occur. Fast forward, and my watch and my Apple phone both started switching—hence my patent! My patent apparently is still being used to this day. 

If you look it up, the patent holders are listed as myself and a colleague. Although, my associate listed his name first. Since it was my idea, I gave him a hard time about that, asking him why his name was first? He casually replied, “John, you may have come up with the idea and written it up on the whiteboard, but I created fifteen pages of documentation to justify and prove your theory; I’m putting my name first.” Okay, fair enough!  After all – he did do quite a bit more work.

While the process of obtaining a patent is intended to be fair and equitable, designed to protect the inventor’s rights, the complexities and challenges make it almost an insurmountable process.  Patents offer us several benefits, but the process alone often deters small inventors and start-ups who have limited resources. 

And that hurts us all because it stifles innovation or provides an undo advantage in some cases.

While efforts have been made to address some of the issues, improvements to the process are still necessary. There are patent reform initiatives and dispute resolution methods now, but we must still try to find a balance between the rewarding real innovation and avoiding the negative consequences. This is an ongoing challenge in the patent process, and why it is time to rethink our patent process and come up with potential reform. For the benefit of all.