Do Patents Help or Hinder Innovation?

May 31, 2008  

I just received a newsletter that had 10 wacky patents.  Here’s my favorite:

Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force: With this invention, the mother-to-be is strapped down to a table that is then is spun to allow centrifugal force to take its course and aid in childbirth. This invention by a husband and wife team was patented in 1965, but surprisingly hasn’t caught on in maternity wards around the country.

This raises an interesting question.  Do patents help or hinder innovation?

The intent of patents was to protect those who make large investments in innovation.  For example, a pharmaceutical company that spends billions of dollars on drug development and testing needs protection.  Clearly these patents help innovation.  No one would invest that much money if someone could come in and replicate their idea.

But what about patents that protect ideas; concepts where no real investment has been made, other than the expenditure of a few brain cells. Do these patents help or hinder innovation? 

I have a patent pending for my “Innovation Personality Poker.”  My investment to date has been thousands, not millions of dollars.  The main cost has been the design and manufacturing of the cards (and legal fees).  But the patent is a process patent; it is the methodology I am protecting.  Therefore, the investment I am protecting is my time.  Is this really a proper use of patents? 

What about patents where no investment has been made. 

I have an idea that I may patent.  It could save the planet through reduced landfills and reduced reliance on petroleum.  My investment in this has been limited to thinking.  If I pursue the patent, it might stop others from developing a similar invention.  Wouldn’t this stifle innovation?  If this idea is so great, shouldn’t we stimulate its development?

What are your thoughts?  Do patents help or hinder innovation?

P.S.  I will probably not patent my idea, but instead will find a manufacturer to partner with.

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5 Responses to “Do Patents Help or Hinder Innovation?”

  1. Ben Hoffman on June 2nd, 2008 5:15 pm

    You can’t patent an idea — only a design. Patents actually promote research. If a company spends millions on research and then comes out with some revolutionary new product, if there were no patents, there would be nothing to stop other companies from simply reverse engineering it and manufacturing it themselves. If that were the case, what would be the motivation for research?

  2. Stephen Shapiro on June 2nd, 2008 5:24 pm

    Ben, true, you can’t patent an idea. But you can patent processes. I know of quite a few processes that are patented that required no investment.

    I totally agree with your point on patenting designs that required investment. They do need protection. I was never debating that.

    The patent office is considering abolishing patents for “business processes” like Amazon.com’s “one-click.” But you can still patent other types of processes, like my Personality Poker.

  3. aditya on June 3rd, 2008 6:01 am

    I agree with Ben. Without patents, you cannot have a successful innovation. It sort of provides the safeguard for an invention to become a great innovation

  4. Brendan Dunphy on June 15th, 2008 3:23 am

    The Patent is only one-half of the process, the other is the use/licensing of it. An increasing number of patent holders have no intention of using the patent themselves (eg Qualcomm) but only exist to generate fees from its licensing to others (eg Nokia). In this case, the license fee is set by the owner at a price that encourages its use rather than forces potential licensees to seek alternatives or a way around its use. In practice this is a complex, adversarial and fractious process with patent holders looking to extract the maximum fee and licensees feeling they are being exploited by an organisation not better at innovation per se, but at the patent process itself. In competitive markets where time-to-market is key they can feel they have no alternative but to use inferior patented and costly solutions to inventing their own; how does this impact innovation, for better or worse? http://brendandunphy.blogspot.com/

  5. Stephen Shapiro on June 17th, 2008 8:39 am

    Brendan,

    Interesting perspective. There are companies out there less reputable than Qualcomm who only develop patents as a way of “extorting” companies who plan to use their ideas.

    I do think you are right. Sometimes it is faster to license someone’s existing patent than it is to develop your own. But it is probably not cheaper.

    Depending on what you are building, sometimes Open Innovation can be a better solution than licensing.

    Steve