Over his career Thomas Edison garnered more U.S. patents than anyone in his time. Edison profited from his patents, but he was also exposed to the dark side of the patent system. He had to contend with lawsuits by other patentees who sought – and sometimes won – a piece of his success. While the patent system is designed to spur innovation like Edison’s, it also hampers it.
Easy copying and imitation discourage innovation, because why make the effort if someone else will profit from it? The patent system works by enabling inventors to block unauthorized use of patented technology.
Most technologies are developed by many inventors over many years, a process called “cumulative” innovation. Too often, however, early inventors get a patent on a small and perhaps insignificant piece of the technological puzzle, yet their patent covers the entire puzzle. Inventors who solve subsequent parts of the puzzle may need to pay royalties to the patentee, even if their contributions are larger.
As legal experts who focus on technology law and policy, we suggest that the problem boils down to two issues: too many patents and too little accurate information about them.