Fixing the Patent Mess

Opinion: We have called for patent reform, and we can do so again.

"We are the patent office, not the rejection office."—Bruce Lehman, then U.S. commissioner of patents and trademarks, in 1992

While perhaps uttered with good intent, the philosophy behind Lehmans statement—a patent office that issues lots of patents is highly productive—has led us to a sorry state today, thanks to a glut of patents issued on grounds of dubious innovation.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about RIMs patent battles.

A truly productive patent office would work not only harder but also smarter, focusing on quality patents—documents that protect genuine innovation and that are so sound as to discourage reasonable challenge. We are a long way from that today.

When Research In Motion rang in the new year with announcements that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had ruled against two more NTP patent infringement claims relating to RIMs popular BlackBerry service, it might have been taken as good news by those who favor the sparing award of patents.

But if the patents had not been awarded to begin with, there would have been no costly lawsuits. Even though two patent infringement claims were knocked off the books, thousands more patent-related lawsuits are still waiting to be heard.

Last year, the USPTO granted 165,485 patents, up from 99,000 in 1990. According to the patent office, a record 406,302 new applications were filed last year alone. Correspondingly, the number of patent lawsuits filed annually in U.S. District Courts increased by 81 percent between 1993 and 2003—from 1,553 cases to 2,814—according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about how IBM is aiming to improve patents.

Enough already! Do we want to hamstring our economy by indiscriminately handing out idea land grants, to the point where companies cant traverse the technology landscape without paying countless tolls? Litigation wastes resources that we would like to see spent on R&D or merely conserved by vendors to enable them to lower product prices.

We have called for patent reform in this space before, and we do so again. Its time for Congress to act, beginning with more funding for the USPTO. If the patent office had more resources, applications could be reviewed with a more discerning eye to ensure that only truly novel ideas are granted patents.

In addition, we would like Congress to enact many of the changes proposed by the Patent Reform Act of 2005, introduced last year by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. Smiths legislation would create a program allowing interested parties to challenge patents after theyve been granted, in a process that averts expensive litigation.

In addition, the measure would allow members of the public to file, before a patent application is reviewed, any documents demonstrating that a patent may not be valid because of prior art. These steps would help reduce the granting of trivial patents.

The U.S. patent system should ensure that inventors can protect their creations in a transparent process. A successful patent system benefits society by fostering invention and innovation—not by creating piles of paper and endless wars of litigation.

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