By Manny Schecter
The U.S. has endured numerous economic eras — farming, machines, manufacturing, transportation, and so on. Why has the U.S. economy survived and, more importantly, thrived throughout these periods? Were we just inherently gifted farmers? Were we all mechanically inclined? Are we experts at efficiency? If not, what then?
Our economy has proven flexible enough to successfully transition from one era to the next, but how? The answer lies not in details about the eras themselves, but in the innovation that enabled and sustained them. That is, the U.S. has been a leading innovator in each economic era. We are curious. We are creative. We are inventive. And this innovative spirit has been the common thread throughout.
Another reason why our nation has successfully navigated numerous economic eras is we have the most robust patent system in the world. The patent system is an engine for innovation. Specifically designed to promote innovation, the patent system provides the protection needed to ensure creative endeavors are not misappropriated by others who have not shouldered the same development expense. To allow otherwise would advantage copycats over inventors.
The patent system also promotes follow-on innovation by disseminating information. Patents are published descriptions of how to make and use inventions. Inventors receive limited exclusive rights in exchange for teaching others about their inventions, thereby enabling others to further advance the technology without having to start “from scratch.” In a sense, each inventor helps the next inventor.
The patent system also attempts to strike a balance. Exclusive rights may reduce competition and raise prices in the short term, but increased innovation eventually enhances competition and benefits public well being. If patents are too strong or too weak the impact of the patent system is not optimized.
Recently, the patent system has come under attack. Some assailants seek so-called reforms to curb abuses – perhaps an attempt to find the optimally balanced “sweet spot” that benefits their interests. Debate is healthy and important, but the patent system is so complex that universal agreement as to the location of the sweet spot is unlikely. The optimal approach strikes a balance among stakeholders to promote innovation.
Unfortunately, thoughtful calls for patent reform have highlighted only negative aspects of the patent system. Emboldened by news of the negative aspects, extremists have called for outright abolishment of the entire patent system. Others have made declarations that legitimate and highly innovative technologies should not be patentable or should be treated with undue suspicion.
We risk more than merely missing the sweet spot. Innovation is our economy. We risk crippling our most innovative and competitive industries, such as life sciences and information technology. Imagine life without cures for new diseases or the next generation of computing – a new era of cognitive systems where machines can learn, reason and interact with people in more natural ways. We risk an economy without the jobs these industries provide.
That is why we support a healthy patent system. We need balance, not uncertainty. We need optimization, not destruction. And that is why IBM has joined and is backing the new Partnership for American Innovation, a cross-industry coalition of companies that is collaborating to promote a positive climate for technology innovation. For more information about this new group and its mission, see: www.partnershipforamericaninnovation.org.
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