Washington has always loved a good war. Ronald Reagan revived the nation's War on Drugs, George W. Bush declared a War on Terror, and, more recently, some of the conservatives in Congress have even accused liberals of waging a War on Christmas. But there is one war that has failed to grab the headlines it deserves.
I'm speaking of the ongoing War on Inventors.
Our founding fathers understood that American innovation would lead to American jobs, so they created the U.S. Patent System to nurture and protect small inventors. Their strategy paid off, and our nation's economy grew into an international juggernaut because of independent innovators like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney, and the Wright Brothers.
Their modern-day counterparts are in danger. For the last few years, a small handful of global high-tech corporations and their allies on Capitol Hill have been doing everything they can to put small inventors out of business. Ironically, many of these companies--Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others--were themselves started in inventors' garages, but now they live in constant fear that their business models will be disrupted by unpredictable technologies developed by little guys.
Since the late 1990s, these high-tech multinationals have been stripping garage inventors of their rights under the guise of "patent reform," doling out tens of millions of dollars to K Street lobbyists and pushing Congress to chip away at the system carefully laid out by Thomas Jefferson and his brethren. Their latest attempt to undercut innovation, the harmless-sounding "Patent Transparency and Improvements Act of 2013," will be debated by the Senate later this year. If passed, this bill would make it all but impossible for small, cash-strapped patent holders to file perfectly legitimate claims against large companies that rip off their intellectual property, tilting the legal system in favor of corporate infringers. These new "Loser Pay" laws would encourage technological copycatting and greatly reduce the incentives that keep independent inventors tinkering in their garages.
The anti-innovation crowd is even proposing that the director of the patent office create a national database of the small inventors who are forced to defend their inventions in court most often--not to help them, mind you, but to monitor them and help big businesses beat them in the courtroom.
If this isn't an example of big government picking winners and losers in the marketplace, then I don't know what is.
Congress should instead focus on making the patent office more accessible to small inventors, who often run into bureaucratic problems that are difficult to solve without a large corporation's resources. The independent inventor Gilbert Hyatt is a prime example. Hyatt is one of the fathers of the microcomputer, and he recently had to take the patent office to court because the agency has apparently refused to decide appeals on patent applications that have been pending, unbelievably, for more than 40 years. Hyatt is now asking a federal court to order the patent office to stop delaying and issue decisions on the appeals.
Hyatt is not the only small inventor to have suffered problems like these.
Rather than enact legislation that encourages the patent office to discriminate against small inventors like Hyatt, Congress should consider creating some much-needed protections for them.
As it stands now, the patent office allows inventors over the age of 65 to petition the agency for an accelerated examination of their patent applications. The older an inventor is, the less likely he or she is able to wait years for an answer from the agency, and this measure encourages innovators to keep working on technologies that could one day provide thousands of other Americans with jobs. Why not do the same for small-scale applicants, such as companies with fewer than 10 employees, or organizations with few or no issued patents? Congress might also consider waiving the fees applicants like these pay in order to file application continuances, which are new claims that build upon existing patent applications. Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy, and steps like these would help grow particularly inventive companies into engines of prosperity.
Whatever course it chooses to take, Congress should stop those that want to undercut American innovation, particularly in the midst of a fragile economic recovery. Small inventors made this country what it is today, and I shudder to think what its future would be like without them.