You gotta love this country: AOL Time Warner gets a cut every time someone performs “Happy Birthday” publicly, and meanwhile the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) has been handing out industrial secrets like a meth dealer on a biz-development binge.
“This,” says Pat Choate, economist and former Reform Party vice-presidential candidate, “is something we’ve got to reverse.”
What? The very guardians of our nation’s cherished intellectual-property heritage exposed as culprits in the mushrooming global piracy crisis? Actually, it turns out they’re not the real bad guys. The actual villains, Choate explains, are the 535 slackers fiddling ’mid the bonfires on Capitol Hill.
In Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in an Age of Globalization, Choate details how globalism-greasing patent reforms require the USPTO to post patent-application details on the Web 18 months after submission—though underfunding and understaffing issues mean that nearly 28 months pass between application and patent grant. In other words, the secrets behind, say, nanorobotics and new approaches to nuclear medicine may have been exposed to public view without the benefit of patent-law protection for months.
“For almost two centuries,” Choate writes, “the patent office treated an inventor’s application with the utmost secrecy, knowing that competitors and pirates would like nothing better than to get an advanced peek….Now, any counterfeiter, pirate, intellectual property thief, or competitor can.” It’s not fatal for big companies, which can afford litigation once their patents are approved; for small firms and entrepreneurial inventors who can’t, it’s a potential knife to the heart. “In a period of real high-tech innovation,” Choate says, “this shouldn’t be the way we do things.”
National-security concerns abound, but so what if a copy of the latest Windows goes for two bucks on a Shanghai streetcorner? The global knockoff trade gets a lot of press, but only the wonkiest among us could be expected to know how far the ersatz inventory extends. Choate, however, points out that those faux designer PJs you just bought your baby might not be as flame-retardant as a legit pair, and that the Air Force found substandard cables in throttle mechanisms on the plane Dick Cheney flies to and from his favorite undisclosed locations.
Hot Property opens with a history of American intellectual-property law, which essentially began with our stealing the details of every major English technology extant at the time of the Revolution; 150 years later, Choate points out, Japan similarly “expropriated” its way to global economic might.
“We should understand that [China and other up-and-coming economic powers] are going to develop, and that is a good thing,” Choate says. “But…don’t assume they’re not going to attempt to steal your technology, because they are.”
Part of the solution, he says, is to shut down that info sieve at the USPTO. As an old Beltway hand (the 64-year-old divides his time these days between Tucson, Ariz., and Washington, Va.), Choate knows that big changes are slow to come, but he thinks incremental ones are within reach. “I think I can get a good deal of attention and maybe even some legislation on the 18-month rule,” he says. His prescription, characteristically enough, sounds unassumingly practical:
“We should double up on the number of patent examiners, drop that pendency rate down to six months,” he says. “There are 4,000 examiners now; for an additional billion a year”—paid for, he notes, entirely out of patent-application fees—“they could have 10,000.”
“Sometimes,” he says mildly, “we make bad laws, and they’ve got to be changed. And this is one of them.” —Trey Graham