Patents From a First Principles Perspective

The fundamental purpose of the patent system is to get the inventor’s secret information into the hands of the public. The theory is that the public will design around the invention and develop new solutions. This is how the patent system is supposed to help innovation.

One current problem often cited is that people don’t know if they are infringing on a patent. This says that one solution is to improve the distribution of the knowledge already in the patents. If patents were better classified, easier to read, and better able to be searched, they would be more easily used for their intended purpose.

As an engineer in several different companies, I always had to ‘reinvent the wheel’ to solve problems. I had no way of tapping the tremendous resource of patents as a reference tool. Companies used patents as bonus programs for engineers and plaques on the wall to trade with other companies. But none of them used patents as a source of many ideas, both good and bad, and as treatises on specific technologies written by experts in their field.

The person who starts a new project by taking full advantage of everyone who has trodden the path before them is at a much greater advantage than someone who tries to develop everything in a vacuum. This is one of the problems that the patent system is designed to solve.

I use the patent knowledge base for what it was intended: as a resource for information to leverage and build upon.

In many cases, corporations merely trade patents to settle disputes, but very few of them actually catch each other infringing.

A typical scenario for infringement is when someone improves on a patent. The patent owner may sue for infringement, but the infringer (who patented his improvement) may merely offer to cross license the improvement. Both parties benefit from each other, no money needs to change hands, and society as a whole improves.

I think many people miss the big picture of the patent system and fail to see how they can use the system to their benefit, especially when developing new products (including software). As people start mining the patent database for ideas, people will begin realizing some of the value of the system that has been largely untapped. This will get the focus on the quiet, positive aspects of the patent system and away from the headline inducing ugly patent suits.