IBM is proud to be the top recipient of US patents for the 22nd consecutive year. As thousands of IBM inventors mark another year of US patent leadership, we are also taking time to reflect upon the health and vitality of our patent system.
It should come as no surprise that we believe in a strong patent system. Patents protect and promote the business of all innovators. In addition, patents enhance our economy – indeed, many attribute US economic leadership to the robust US patent system. The most advanced industries, including information technology and life sciences, rely on patents to protect innovative products and services. And by promoting innovation, patents improve our standard of living.
While the patent system is certainly not perfect, many of the attacks being leveled against it are unjustified and unreasonable. As a whole, the patent system promotes innovation, period. Some self-proclaimed experts argue otherwise. They are simply mistaken.
Logic dictates that the protective rights conferred by patents encourage activities that result in the development of more patented inventions. And patents provide an important public benefit – patents must include a complete description of an invention, which enables subsequent innovation by others who won’t have to “reinvent the wheel”. Patents justify venture capital investments, prevent copying of inventions by those that did not endure the expense and hard work to create them, and provide essential returns for steep investments in research. The benefits conferred by a strong patent system are not a recent discovery – our founding fathers authorized Congress to create our patent system in Article 1, Section 8 of our Constitution.
Notice the reference to a “strong” patent system, but what does this mean? It does not mean that patents should be awarded for any trivial advance, because members of the public should not have to concern themselves with patents on advances that are not truly innovative and thereby undeserving of protection. Robust application of the statutory requirements of patentability — that an invention is new, non-obvious and clearly and fully described — prevent grant and enforcement of such patents.
A strong patent system also does not play favorites. A well-functioning patent system must provide the needed flexibility to embrace new technology. The patent system must avoid discrimination based on technology. Inventive software must be judged according to the same rules as inventive mechanical devices and inventive medicines, or we risk undermining the very purpose of the patent system – to encourage new and necessarily unknown advances in as-yet unimagined fields of endeavor.
We thus aspire to a strong, but balanced, patent system — one that minimizes risk from meritless patents and frivolous patent litigation. A patent system that enables an understanding of the inventions it protects. A patent system that prevents hidden identities of rights holders and encourages and protects truly significant innovation — without discrimination based on technology. An optimized patent system recognizes the rights of legitimate innovators relying on patent protection, while providing means to curb those that would abuse the patent system to the detriment of the rest of us.
No doubt our patent system could be better. Yet its complexity makes the achievement of absolute perfection elusive. Imperfections represent mere imbalance – a failure to optimize the promotion of innovation, not a failure to promote innovation overall. If promoting innovation remains our goal, we must seek to expose and eliminate the imperfections, taking care to preserve and enhance the incentives the patent system uniquely provides.