Feature

Too many patents kill innovation

The government hands out so many patents that start-ups can’t pursue tomorrow’s big idea without facing a “storm of litigation.”

Matthew YglesiasSlate.com

America has a major patent problem, said Matthew Yglesias. It is not, as many people believe, that we process applications too slowly and hamper product development. It’s that we grant “far too many patents, tying up vast swathes of industry in litigation and negotiation rather than innovation.” A recent surge in technology patent applications has created a huge backlog, so last year the U.S. overhauled its review system to accommodate higher demand. That may sound like a smart move, but it reflects a “fundamental misunderstanding of what’s gone wrong,” particularly in the tech sector. In the pharmaceutical industry, patents largely work as intended: The lure of monopoly profits attracts money for research and development. But in tech, “the government hands out patents so freely that there’s no way to make anything without violating every other big player’s patents.” That means fewer innovative products and far more lawsuits. The system works well for big firms like Google, which spent $12 billion last year to secure Motorola’s mobile-patent arsenal. But it spells death for start-ups, which can’t pursue tomorrow’s big idea without facing a “storm of litigation.” 

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