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Our Patent System is almost completely flawed … let’s demolish it!

When we come out of our current situation, we need to view the world with new eyes. The flaws in our existing society have become apparent, and the old ways of centralisation, wet signatures, and paper-based methods now look ancient. Innovation needs to thrive like never before!

And there’s one major thing that is slowing down our world: the crumbling patent system. There are few other areas of our life that are as old and creaking world as patents. Some might say that it works, and has a long track record of success, others would say, that it is still the same old system used by Eddison, and still based on paper documents, wet signatures, and with too much centralised control of inventions. It is a system that measures itself in months and years, and moves away from our instant world. While in Eddison’s time this was acceptable, in a world where we can build vast systems in minutes, it just doesn’t work any more.

All we have really done in the past few decades, is to wrap a Google search engine over a flawed paper-based infrastructure. It is truly, truly flawed! In a modern system, you should be able to publish your innovation in seconds, and along with your licences for others to use, and the work you build on. But our current system is slow, and built to have costly timelines for others to benefit. And then in the end, who benefits? Not the innovators in most cases.

I could write a whole PhD thesis on the flaws of this system. But, for one, patents are written in that olde world writing style. We have all learnt in academia that we should try and engage the reader, and write in a way that makes the work readable and accessible. I read patents, and I often have to read a paragraph many times, in order to even make sense of it.

Also, as someone who does research, some of the patents just seem in trivial … “We approach a mechanical contact electrical implementation (know as an electrical switch) and press the switch from up to down. Light is then generated from the wires in a glass container. I flick a switch in a downward direction, and the light is removed. A flow chart shows these steps.”

I hate to say it, but perhaps they want to bore the reader in not being able to read it? Here’s one:

Disclosed is a system, method, and an article of manufacture for preferentially keeping an uncopied data set in one of two storage devices in a peer-to-peer environment when data needs to be removed from the storage devices. Each time a data set is modified or newly created, flags are used to denote whether the data set needs to be copied from one storage device to the other. The preferred embodiments modify the timestamp for each uncopied data set by adding a period of time, and thus give preference to the uncopied data set when the data from the storage device is removed based on the least recently used as denoted by timestamp of each data set. Once the data set is copied, the timestamp is set back to normal by subtracting the same period of time added on when the data set was flagged as needing to be copied.

Really? Someone can get a patent for setting a flag on whether data is copied or not?

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Honestly? It is patent to protect a software flag when copying.

I admit, I do have patents to my name, and believe they are generally good patents, as they are based on solid research and the people who have helped create them deserve the credit for the work. I am thus not against the protection of IP, and believe it should be strengthed. But the whole system is completely flawed, and I can’t put it better than this comment on LinkedIn:

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Yes. It is biased to large companies, with big budgets. I even heard that some large companies trade patents between each other, in order to have a fuller deck, and “possibly” stifle innovation. A bit like Eddison getting a patent for steam production, electricity generation, electrical transmission, the switch, and the bulb. Not healthy!

The patent systems is flawed. It is flawed. It is completely flawed. It works against small businesses, and is slow, and just refuses to change. It holds the industry back, and, in many cases, it is probably better publishing the work, and building credibility than waiting for a patent to come through.

The patent system is there for large companies to throw money at anything that moves, and hope that it sticks. From what I see, virtually every patent would be rejected in a peer-reviewed journal for these reasons:

Unbelievably, in this interconnected world with few virtual borders, we still run with a regionalized system, which goes back to the days when it took years for things to scale outside your own country. Why does it require a patent in the UK, India, US, and so on?

I would love to rip-up the system and speed the whole thing up. Basically, we should run on a consensus science approach — as we do with peer-reviewed journals — and where Bob comes up with a core innovation and posts it onto a permissioned ledger. He adds his code, results, and GitHub repository (protected if required), and posts it. A consensus then develops around Bob’s widget, and it becomes an invention. Alice then adds to Bob’s invention, with her own addition. Again there’s a consensus from trusted peers, that this is an inventive step. We now have a timeline of invention, and where others can add Alice’s invention step onto their innovation timeline. Next Eve adds a poor addition, but there’s no consensus for her step, and so the main thread stop at Alice’s addition. Carol, though, adds inventive steps, and this becomes the next innovation thread:

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Now, rather than using Google Patent to search for patents, we have instant auditing of IP, and the timeline and invention. In the following case, we have Dan and Bob creating the invention, and where Alice adds to both. Trent comes along and likes the Bob/Alice invention, but not Carol’s new addition, so licencing BobAlice1.0 from Bob and Alice:

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It is farcical that it takes weeks to search for a patent, and all that happens is that there is a text match for terms. We really need to radically change our IP system, and move away from dull and boring paper-based documents, to things that include code, results, and so on. We need to build on the shoulders of others and give credit where due.

Conclusions

I repeat:

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The whole system is still paper-based … we need to move to digital signing and give inventors control of their work.

Few people I have met in innovation have a good word for the patent system (well, they do have a ‘good word’, but it cannot be published here due to censorship reasons) — but still innovators must patent in order to get that key investment. I do appreciate all the great work of those involved in the process, but let’s try and speed the whole thing up, make it less costly, and make it less centralised?

What’s wrong with patenting the Bob-Alice-Carol method, as long as Bob, Alice and Carol can agree their licencing terms? These could be agreed up-front, so that licencing could be automatic — run from smart contracts — and integrated into software.

All that needs to happen is … deprecate the whole system … get countries of the world to work on a common platform, and where all the statekholders agree on providing the identity, and go for it. IOTA for consensus? Or Hyperledger for ID and crypto?

Written by

Professor of Cryptography. Serial innovator. Believer in fairness, justice & freedom. EU Citizen. Auld Reekie native. Old World Breaker. New World Creator.

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