The Patent System Rework

I have always had an intense interest in patents and the patent system. I am listed as an inventor on several, and have been called on to review many other patents. (No, they are no fun to read. If you have insomnia, this may be your best cure).

I just read a very interesting article: "Wolfe's Den: Mad Rush For Eneterprise 2.0 Patents" by Alexander Wolfe of InformationWeek. The author made this observation: 

Like any nascent technology, Enterprise 2.0 is still searching for its sweet spot. Right now, the first wave of adoption has seen heavy user uptake of wikis. But wikis are just the curtain-raiser, and a minor first act, at that. The main performance is the crop of serious, first-generation products currently rolling out from vendors such as Cisco, IBM, Jive Software, Microsoft, and SAP.

Which got me to thinking: Whenever a new area starts to take off -- before it hits the public consciousness, actually -- companies rush to lock up its intellectual-property underpinnings. This means patents.

Looking at patents is worthwhile, because they give a heads up on interesting developments which might lie down the road. They provide inferential insight into vendors' possible product plans, or, more correctly, the type of stuff they've been thinking about and the problems they've had to work to overcome.

Mr. Wolfe continue with a review of recent patents by the major players  ... an excellent article and I recommend. 

The real reason for this post is to consider the impact of our patent system on innovation. For about 200 years this system has served us well. It promoted innovation by rewarding the innovator with exclusive rights to intellectual property for a period of time. It also provided a path for the spread of new technology through disclosure. 

Today the system is in need a a major overhaul. It is burdened by it's own legacy and a mountain of bureaucracy. A few observations (my short list):

Patents take far too long to publish
When you are the inventor, this can work to your advantage as it allows you to keep your IP 'hidden' for a period of time. The implications of the slow system are well illustrated in the smart phones legal battles we witness in the news today.  In the rush to obtain exclusive rights to new IP, companies flood the patent office with new applications. The volume of patents further slows the process.  What happens next is that overlapping patents are granted. This sets in motion years of legal battles.

What is an innovation anyway? 
I have read hundreds of patents. I often walk away asking myself, "Is this really an invention".  Applying known science to new applications seems obvious, but in today's system, this results in a patent. One test for patentability is that it is not suppose to be "obvious to those skilled in the art." A quick note: A very large percentage of patents that are in the system have never been used.  I have heard numbers as high as 95%.

Patent Trolls
A patent troll is a holding company that owns a portfolio of patents. These companies exist for one reason: to build this portfolio, and then to sue others for infringement. Some argue that these organizations have value. I feel that they are destructive. They do nothing to innovate or spread innovation. I argue that they exist because the system is flawed. The are a symptom of the problem.

The patent system is in need of an overhaul. I am not sure anyone in the position to deal with it has the passion or energy to deal with it. It is in need of radical simplification, faster processing and patent rules that encouage real innovation. What do you think?