by Caroline Marsili, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
The candidates aren't talking about patents (with the exception of a brief quip about IP piracy in last Tuesday's debate). But if it's "all about the economy," they should be talking patent policy.
In the presidential and vice-presidential debates of recent weeks, the candidates have exchanged vitriol and "gotchas," and have established a contrast in both policy and character for voters. Notably absent from the debates has been discussion of innovation, and more specifically, the role of IP policy in innovation. IP policy would seem an attractive platform for discussing job creation, as IP industries account for a vast portion of the Nation's jobs and GDP ("IP-intensive industries" accounted for 27.7 of all jobs in the economy in 2010). It's possible that the candidates find common ground on this issue. Alternatively, the topic is, for the time-being, moot in the wake of the America Invents Act, the full effects of which are yet to be seen.
Since its passage just over a year ago, some critics have expressed doubt that the Act will create jobs and promote innovation as promised. Others argue not that the Act is failing, but that it represents a misplaced effort to reform patent policy.
The solution? "Don't just reform patents, get rid of them." A recent working paper by Boldrin & Levine makes the bold case that our patent system is ultimately more trouble than it's worth. The authors admit that abolishing patents "may seem 'pie-in-the-sky'" and acknowledge the glut of transitional issues that would need addressing; just the same, they conclude that the key to reforming our patent system is to get rid of it. Their central beef with the system is the want of empirical evidence that it does what it purports to do: promote innovation and productivity. Meanwhile, there are other incentives for innovation and many negative externalities of the patent system.
Other authors have proposed less radical approaches to revamping the patent system. In her recent article in MJLST, "An Organizational Approach to the Design of Patent Law", Liza Vertinsky also finds that empirical literature fails to decisively connect patents to innovation and economic growth. However, Vertinsky takes a more optimistic approach to the floundering patent system, arguing that policy-makers should seize reform efforts as an opportunity to tailor the patent law to innovation objectives. The America Invents Act, she argues, isn't a significant change in the direction of patent policy and instead seeks to remedy narrower concerns with administrative backlog, litigation costs and patent quality. In her view, patent policy should be revamped to encourage innovation based on how individuals and organizations--corporations, Congress, the PTO--really function.
Vertinsky's "organizational approach" entails a new way of thinking about patents in terms of how patent policy, informed by economic theory, should be fashioned to strengthen the organization of innovation rather than focusing on incentivizing acts of invention. For example, patent laws can be tailored to the needs of different innovation processes across different industries. While sweeping changes in patent policy are unlikely at this time (witness the battles encountered in passing and implementing the America Invents Act), Vertinsky's proposals should inform discussion among policy-makers about what the patent system can and should do. The Obama Administration's national innovation strategy neglected to give patent policy a more central role in encouraging innovation, but the desire to build an "innovation economy" is certainly there, and a rational and successful patent policy is vital to attaining the kinds of high-level jobs and industry the country needs and the candidates promise.
(Others think patent policy may not matter at all. What do you think?).