Patents have been essential to ensuring innovation. But the US may be fencing itself in by putting too many new developments under patent protection.
It's a case that anyone who has ever struggled for possession of the TV remote could relate to.
Universal Electronics, a company based in Cypress, Calif., holds a patent on a multipurpose remote-control device - something that can program several electronic devices in, for instance, a house: the lights, the TV, the sound system. And just over a year ago, Universal filed suit against four other manufacturers of similar devices, claiming patent infringement.
But Universal's patent on the multipurpose remote is being challenged - a development that sent Duane, a software engineer in southern New Jersey and a bounty hunter, digging deep into the microfiche collections of his local public library.
Duane, who didn't want his last name used, thought the Universal remote sounded like a good idea - so good, in fact, that he remembered that someone had already invented such a thing. His triumph was to find a copy of a Byte magazine article he recalled from 1987 that told how to build a remote like Universal's. His diligence won him a $10,000 bounty offered by a litigant challenging Universal's patent.
Duane is a foot soldier in the struggle to keep the United States patent system honest. In this case, finding the article - like finding a blueprint or a technical drawing - provided "prior art," evidence that a certain invention existed before the current claimant invented it. Such a discovery can invalidate a patent.
Boston patent attorney Charles Cella, founder and chief executive of Bounty Quest, the company through which Duane won his prize, describes the situation as a "patent-quality crisis." Close to half of all patents are invalidated when litigated, he says.
The ongoing Universal case raises a number of questions about the US patent system. Are patents being granted undeservedly, simply because examiners are too swamped to give applications due diligence? And is America patenting itself into a corner: granting too many patents, and patents of the wrong kind, thus impeding the capacity for further innovation?
It's a crisis most civilizations would love to have.
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