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By Steven Salzberg for Forbes , Photo: redtimmy/Flickr
We’ve seen how badly the U.S. patent system is broken when it comes to gene patents. The recent U.S. Supreme Court case overturning Myriad Genetics’ patents on the human breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, was a step in the right direction. But the problem goes much deeper than that. The U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) simply can’t keep up with technology, and as a result its lawyers keep granting patents that they just don’t understand. As a result, completely obvious ideas end up as patents, inhibiting innovation and keeping beneficial technology out of the hands of the public. This is just the opposite of what the patent system is supposed to do.
It’s not only gene patents that confuse the USPTO. They also fail miserably when it comes to computer technology. Some years ago, they issued a patent for scanning in a document and emailing it. This idea is so obvious that it probably was “invented” by thousands of people back in the early days of scanners, and most of them probably didn’t think to patent it. But one guy did, and now his patent is owned by a patent troll: a company that doesn’t make anything, but threatens to sue everyone in sight to extort money from them.
And now we have a law firm that is going around demanding $1000 in licensing fees from everyone who scans a document and then emails it. ArsTechnica wrote about this back in April, and again in May when HP decided to fight back, pointing out that HP was selling printers that could scan and email documents before the patent in question was granted.
But that’s kind of not the point, is it? The USPTO should never have granted this patent, which was just for the idea of scanning and emailing – the inventor didn’t build anything, nor did he create some novel technology. Patenting ideas for computer programs as “business methods,” which the patent office started allowing back in the 1990s, opened the floodgates to patent trolls, and we’re suffering the consequences today.
And now, surprisingly, two U.S. states are fighting back. In the past week, Vermont’s and then Nebraska’s attorneys generals have sent letters telling the patent troll (a company called MPHJ and its lawyers, a firm called Farley Daniels) to leave their citizens alone, as the Washington Post reported this week. They might win, too, using a new law in Vermont that lets victims of patent trolls sue back.
The problem is that we have a large and powerful industry of patent lawyers who are deeply invested in the current system, and fight tooth and nail against any attempt to change it. Perhaps the recent egregious over-reaching by some greedy folks, including those who hold patents on human genes, will finally make it clear that the patent system is broken and in desperate need of major reform.