At the end of the day the real test of whether something should be patentable or not should be related to the reason patents were instituted in the first place...to incent investment in R&D by rewarding that investment in innovation. The reward, in the form of artificial protection from competition for a limited time, is enough to ensure the investor(s) profit from the investment. Obvious or not, if a company or individual has invested significant time/money in a program aimed at solving a problem and come up with a new and unique (even if obvious by hindsight) solution they should be rewarded not for the idea, but for the investment, thus incenting investment in innovation.
The fundamental problem with the patent system today is that it has been warped over the years into something it was not intended to be. Remember, the patent system is not something that has to exist; it is something that we as a society agree to have in order to incent individuals and companies to perform activities that are of benefit to society. Patenting of business processes, software patents and incidental patents (my own personal winner for least deserving) are all the result of this move away from the original intention. Combine this shift with the allegations of overworked and wrongly incented employees and the patent system certainly looks broken
There appear to be two basic uses for the patent system that unfortunately are sometimes at odds with each other.
- Reward investment in deliberate innovation...The benefit to society is clear...by granting a temporary monopoly on an innovation, individuals and companies are incented to invest in areas that would otherwise not have a decent return on investment due to the ease of duplicating any innovation.
- Retroactively profit from incidental innovation...The benefit to individual companies is clear in the form of profits...however the benefit to the general economy and society is less clear but possibly present in the form of eliminating duplication of effort. A company or individual can retroactively identify innovations (that were not the primary goal of the investment) and patent these in order to license the technology to others. The societal benefit of this activity is significantly lower than (1) and certainly does not require or deserve the massive incentive that a patent delivers in the form of a monopoly on that innovation.
[Aside: When I worked for a large s/w company we were encouraged to regularly trawl through our developed code for potentially patentable algorithms, this is clearly a case of (2) not (1)]
Surely the only useful purpose for a patent system is to incent companies to make investments that would otherwise not have been made. If a company got a clear benefit from an investment and would continue to benefit whether granted a patent or not then there is no point in society (i.e. the rest of us) granting them a patent! What they have is a trade secret that should be protected by other laws (copyright?); it should not be a patentable innovation. Other companies should have the right to make a similar investment to develop a similar solution (or license the technology/solution from the original company if that is agreeable and makes more economic sense)
Today, if a company has a trade secret that they feel they could make money off they typically have to patent the trade secret (even if only defensively) and then license it. This behaviour (licensing developed solutions) should be incented but not using the same system as that which incents investment in innovation.
So how about taking this approach...
- Patents should be returned to their original goal...a way to incent innovation by protecting those innovations that result from deliberate investments in R&D.
- Encourage a parallel system that allows companies to profit from incidental innovations if they have value. A way of facilitating the offering of such incidental innovations as commodities rather than legislating them as monopolies is what is needed and far more in keeping with a truly capitalist approach to this, i.e. let the market decide if the innovation is valuable. It would avoid the negative effect of a making these trade secrets patentable, which actually makes innovation in related areas harder to achieve. After all, projects which have a decent return on investment without patents will continue to get investment without patents. Why would we as a society give free profits for incidental innovations (effectively simply raising the price for all of us) that are a result of work that would be done anyway?
- Every patent application should be subjected to a test of intent. Was it the intent of the investment to solve this particular problem in a new and innovative way, if not then the invention is incidental and cannot be patented.
The effect of this proposal is to separate the reward systems for deliberate innovations and incidental innovations. It would drastically reduce the number of innovations that qualify for patents (deliberate innovations), but continue to encourage the licensing of incidental (but genuine) innovations as commodities, exposing them to market forces that would determine how obvious they were (i.e. if they truly have value people will pay for them, if they are obvious or exist elsewhere then they won't pay for them...simple.)