Patenting has always been a messy business, and America has always struggled with how to protect its inventors, according to Darin Gibby in his book Why Has America Stopped Inventing. A modern inventor faces a drawn-out and expensive battle with the Patent Office in applying for a patent, and the cost rises to millions of dollars if the patentee seeks to enforce a patent, with very little certainty at the end of the process. But America’s first inventors also encountered hardships and obstacles in protect their creations.
The book also includes stories about Cyrus McCormick, Alexander Graham Bell, George Baldwin Selden (a patent attorney whom the author describes as the first patent troll), Guglielmo Marconi, Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers.
According to the author, if America’s golden days of invention are to be revived, it will be necessary to create a more efficient equitable process for protecting inventions. His specific recommendations include:
Interestingly enough, the last of the author’s recommendations is already being implemented in the America Invents Act of 2011. Do his other recommendations actually solve the problems with patents that the rest of the book so vividly illustrate? They might help, but it seems to me that a significant problem illustrated by the stories is the ability of the patentee to use the patent monopoly capriciously to hold up progress. If useful inventions are encouraged by the prospect of huge rewards, then surely it is possible to structure those rewards in a manner less antagonistic to the interests of society, for example by means of a compulsory licensing scheme whereby the inventor is rewarded with royalties but cannot prevent others from using and building upon his or her invention. If it was feasible, such a scheme could potentially make patents much less expensive to enforce and much less of a threat to industries.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about many of America’s famous inventors, and contemplating the author’s ideas for reform.