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Has the US patent system gone too far?

Reformers push to limit what is protected.

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When Samuel Hopkins came up with a method for improving the production of potash, it was probably just the kind of invention that President George Washington had in mind when he created the US patent system. Hopkins, who in 1790 received the first American patent ever issued, had discovered a way to increase the production of a critical resource used to make glass, soap, and soil fertilizer.

It’s unclear, however, how Washington would feel about America’s 6,368,227th patent.

Issued to Steven Olson, it protects a “method of swinging on a swing ... in which a user positioned on a standard swing suspended by two chains from a substantially horizontal tree branch induces side to side motion by pulling alternately on one chain and then the other.”

To critics of the current US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), this kind of patent demonstrates everything that’s wrong with the patent system today.

“We have too many patents being granted,” according to Daniel Ravicher, who is the Legal Director for the Software Freedom Law Center. “There still remains this belief that the more patents we have, the better society is. A more sophisticated and reasonable belief is that there have to be some patents, but we need to assure that they are legitimately worthy.”

Traditionally, patents were only granted on tangible things, such as physical devices and chemical processes. But a series of court rulings in the 1980s opened the door to patents on more abstract processes, such as business plans and software code.

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