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The Myth of the Sole Inventor, Mark Lemley, Stanford
I strongly believe that the recent trend to patenting algorithms is of benefit only to a very small number of attorneys and inventors, while it is seriously harmful to the vast majority of people who want to do useful things with computers. When I think of the computer programs I require daily to get my own work done, I cannot help but realize that none of them would exist today if software patents had been prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. Changing the rules now will have the effect of freezing progress at essentially its current level.
—Donald Knuth, letter to the Commissioner of Patents & Trademarks, USPTO, February 1994
Inventions must be tied to a particular machine or transform something. Useful, concrete, and tangible result of State Street is inadequate.
—David Kappos, Federal Circuit, in re Bilski, 30 October 2008
The 1952 Patent Act expanded coverage to include industrial processes. With the increasing importance of manufacturing to the economy, Congress had been successfully lobbied to provide a layer of protection around industrial manufacturing processes. With the Act, however, it introduced the framework by which to patent business processes – patents such as one click buy. The patents have muddied the water and introduced an expensive and chilling sense of uncertainty to business and information-oriented innovation.
Patents start with a basic tension. Economies benefit from the dispersion of ideas accompanied by sharing the details of inventions. Inventors, however, have little incentive to share the details if it results in no more than a roadmap for competitors to follow. Patents offer inventors a simple trade-off. Make public the details of your invention, and the government will in exchange grant the exclusive right to exploit it.
The 1952 Patent Act was designed to advance manufacturing quickly. Industrial processes, without the protection of a patent, might remain trade secrets, and these trade secrets were perhaps too valuable to the economy to be kept private. A patent system designed to protect them would open them up and accelerate growth. Or maybe it was more facile than that. Patents would provide legal protection and accrue enterprise to those that developed them. Either way, the patent system shifted from one organized around physical designs to one accommodating of processes. Read the rest of this entry »