Somewhere near the end of 2011, I responded to an ad that was left on Craigslist. A website called IPWatchdog.com was looking for a writer to contribute content on Apple’s patenting activities. By this time, I had decided to see what kind of career prospects I had in freelance writing. I had a good deal of experience, including an internship during the summer of 2010 with The Buffalo News, which showed me the inner workings of the newsroom for a major daily paper, but most work I had found to that point only lasted a few months at most.
The job seemed straightforward enough: just write about innovations being patented by Apple. Tech writing seemed interesting and every Tuesday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would issue new patents detailing these innovations; on Thursdays, I’d also take a look at patent applications published by the USPTO. And then, I actually read a patent for the first time. I cannot remember the first few patents I read. I can, however, remember the intense mental anguish I felt while trying to understand the highly technical and legal language of patents. Comprehension of patent claims is not for the weak of heart.
Over time, the work I did for IPWatchdog expanded. Instead of focusing on Apple innovations, Gene told me to branch out and look at the innovations being patented by a variety of tech giants. What evolved from that was our Companies We Follow series, a regular look into the innovations developed by the likes of Google, IBM, Samsung and others. For the next year or so, I’d cycle through a group of eight to ten of these tech giants, covering their recent innovations while facing a learning curve regarding computer-implemented methods and other elements of patent claims with which I didn’t have a great deal of familiarity.
Eventually, the topic areas I covered for IPWatchdog began to broaden to areas like NASA innovations and missions as well as regulatory activity spurred on at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Over time, Gene and I would end up developing a few other successful series including both the Evolution of Technology as well as the Disaster Tech series. Instead of confining my reporting to a small group of tech firms, I was free to chase news headlines and give my perspective on topics like Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s duplicitous stance on patents or Google’s corporate conversion to the Alphabet holding company, to name a couple. At the same time, I was also able to follow-up on fun story topics like giant robot battles or innovations related to barbecue and grilling. Every few weeks, I would send Gene a long list of story ideas I came up with by looking through business and technology news reports. By the beginning of 2017, Gene had set me free to follow whatever story I wanted, telling me that, “You know this audience well.” Currently, I consider myself to have one of the most enviable jobs in the writing world: I’m very free to set my own editorial focus and I have no shortage of interesting topics to cover for an audience which has continued to build over the past five years.
During 2017, my writing work took on an entirely new dimension as the many issues of the United States’ current patent landscape came into a much sharper focus. I was already familiar with the very slanted nature of “patent troll” rhetoric which is still rife in the patent world but the International IP Commercialization Council’s (IIPCC) policy event at Congress that May was tremendously eye-opening. It wasn’t until that event that I heard firsthand from those with a great deal of experience on patent law about the deleterious effects that such rhetoric was having on the country’s patent system in the service of promoting patent reforms which have had the effect of reducing the rights of patent owners. Uncertain patentability of inventions in the United States, the many problems inherent at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and China’s surprising stance on strong intellectual property rights have made up a good deal of my recent coverage and will likely remain in focus for the foreseeable future.
Over the past five years, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be an inventor in today’s patent system. I’ve learned that, unless you have the deep wallets to create advocacy groups which beat the drums for further patent reforms in service to the efficient infringer lobby, you tend to get railroaded by the system. I’ve learned that there’s an incredibly thin line between inventors and patent trolls and that it only takes a single lawsuit for the political leadership in Washington to view you as a troll. I’ve learned that that same leadership has been so zealous about pursuing patent reform that they scoff at the notion that China may have a better patent law regime than the United States.
In short, I’ve learned that the United States of today is not the same country where the famed garage inventor can become a business success thanks to hard work and ingenuity. Today, the true beneficiaries of innovation seem to be those well-entrenched interests who can copy without great fear of reprisal, leaving the actual inventors without any true ability to commercialize and profit from their intellectual property. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the child Wart would be taught to avoid the philosophy that “Might is Right” well before he ascended to the throne at Camelot as King Arthur. As far as U.S. patent law is concerned, such a philosophy on might being right seems to have unfortunately infected the reform debate, especially in recent years.
With five solid years of work spent covering a wide expanse of the activities related to the tech and legal worlds, I’m honestly quite grateful for what has come to pass ever since I answered that Craigslist ad. The stories we’ve covered may involve a good deal of inconvenient truths but they are stories that need to be told if we’re to have any hope for a return to a fairer system of adjudicating patentability and enforcing patent rights in this country. There’s also no small amount of surprise that I feel at the fact that patent law was where writing took me; I grew up thinking that I might write books or scripts and even when my focus turned towards journalism, I had never contemplated intellectual property as a specific area to cover. It’s been such an interesting ride thus far that I’ve started considering what a law degree might mean for my future. While those plans are in their very early stages and life is often wont to take some unexpected turns, I am very excited to see where this work will lead over the next five years and beyond.