10/01/2012 12:14 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Patents for Humanity

"Never before in the history of patents was so much written by so many about so few." Churchill may not have penned it quite that way, but it certainly captures the national zeitgeist. Patents have captured the public's attention, especially the recent Apple-Samsung case and the "smartphone patent war." This has led to many in Silicon Valley calling for reforms to the patent system.

Yet many commentators are unaware of the tremendous changes already going on at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) and at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the nation's specialist patent court. For instance, the America Invents Act passed last year provides a vast array of cost-effective new tools for both patent applicants and the public to craft clear, high-quality patent rights and more easily resolve disputes. This is on top of ongoing efforts to improve patent quality and streamline the examination process.

The USPTO is America's innovation agency, the first stop for new inventions seeking market success. But the USPTO doesn't just examine innovation - we strive to innovate as well, constantly seeking new and better ways to serve the public.

As an example, consider the USPTO's Patents for Humanity program. At first blush, patents may not seem to have much bearing on the lives of the impoverished in sub-Saharan Africa and around the world, where access to basic necessities like food and water trump concerns about the latest smartphone. Few of these countries even have a functioning patent system for legal rights to exist.

But in fact, patented technology can be tremendously beneficial to the lives of the poor. From life-saving medicines, vaccines, and medical technology to drought- and pest-resistant crops, from purification devices removing harmful contaminants in water and air to cell phones and other information devices that raise income and standards of living - the developing world benefits tremendously from modern technology. Not just as consumers, but as partners and producers of innovation as well - even exporting those innovations to the developed world.

What is the role of patents in all this? Far from being a roadblock, patents can be the currency of innovation that helps disseminate advanced technology in the developing world. Regardless of global destination, most high-tech goods are manufactured in a handful of countries which have functioning patent systems. Delivering innovative products to Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, or elsewhere thus requires legal rights in the manufacturing centers of the world. Patents enable business relationships that are otherwise difficult or impossible by encapsulating these legal rights into manageable assets.

More and more businesses are finding innovative ways to deliver life-changing goods and services to the less fortunate. Pharmaceutical companies that contribute patents, drug compounds, and technical know-how to global knowledge pools combating neglected tropical diseases. Biotech firms creating international manufacturing and distribution networks to provide low-cost food and medicine to the poor. Energy startups bringing affordable solar power to remote villages, removing noxious kerosene fumes from people's homes.

The USPTO applauds such efforts. But we can do more. The regions of greatest need often lack functioning markets to sustain these endeavors. And patent owners need to recover their investments in R&D or the next generation of life-changing products will never be funded. The USPTO's Patents for Humanity program helps fill this gap by providing patent holders a return on their investment in humanitarian enterprises.

Successful Patents for Humanity participants receive accelerated processing of select matters at the USPTO on any technology in their portfolio. They will also get recognition by the Federal government of their valuable work. These incentives provide businesses a greater return on humanitarian investments, encouraging more attention to underserved markets.

Patent holders come in all shapes and sizes, and each contributes in different ways. Patents for Humanity recognizes effective contributions from all types of businesses, highlighting templates of successful humanitarian investments for others to follow. The USPTO is at the forefront of this emerging area, helping businesses help the world.

To be sure, significant challenges remain. There is no one-shot (or one-click) panacea to the world's patent issues. But what is frequently lost in the public discussion is that tremendous positive changes are already underway. The USPTO will continue to work with the public to craft solutions that serve the needs of the 21st century and beyond.

Patents for Humanity is accepting applications through Oct 31, 2012. To learn more or apply online, visit