The economy continues to lumber along, perhaps turning a corner without actually creating much in the way of new jobs. We never know just where we stand until it’s in our rearview mirror.. One thing that has perked up lately is talk about innovation as a way out of the mess we’re in. Obama is pitching $30B for small business lending on the grounds that this is where innovation, and thus jobs, are created. So far, so good. But the spirit of innovation in the USofA needs a lot more than that if it is going to be the engine of new growth and new jobs.
I’m happy that we’re talking about innovation because it is a small acknowledgement that some kind of restructuring is necessary to get us moving again – basically, that we’re gonna have to do something different. If that includes highly technical areas we have a lot more to do than talk.
I know of three different ideas right now being promoted by three different people that are looking for an investment in little more than the lab space to prove their ideas. What they have can fancifully be called “intellectual property”, the product of their minds waiting to be recognized and put into use. That’s a long, tough road.
An idea is just an idea. In order to make it into “intellectual property” you have to “reduce it to practice” or show that it works. You then have to “teach” it in the right legal document known as a patent before the government recognizes this as something you can call your property. From there, you own it for 20 years from the day of first filing.
There are many hurdles that have to be overcome. The law itself is based on whoever files the invention first, and to do that you have to prove that it works. For those of us with chemical and materials backgrounds, that means that we have access to the tools necessary to do this. Nevermind that 20 years is nothing compared to the extended protection given to songs or books – we need more than a piano or a keyboard to make something that can ever be defined as property.
Even with access to the tools of the trade, patent filing is a tricky thing. I recently realized that I learned from some of the best in the biz while I worked at 3M, writing patents on my own work that have already stood up against lawsuits. I’ve read a number of patents recently to help understand the “prior art” in an area that were rather poorly written. More than knowing your way around the lab, you have to know how to write it up or pay someone to do it for you. That’s another barrier.
The US Patent and Trademark Office is currently taking about five years to grant patents. That’s an eternity to a small business. You can always use “patent pending”, but the long timeframe has encouraged big players in any field to write their way around something that is filed and claim their own territory. The Patent Office is horribly under-staffed and swamped, so don’t expect anything in the way of guidance.
Why are so few people involved in patents and patent writing? The technical nature of it makes it hard to get into in more ways than one. Albert Einstein once served as a patent clerk, doing nothing but reading patent filings all day long. He wound up so bored out of his gourd that his mind wandered into musings about light and other dimensions, which as we all know became remarkably productive. But it’s still a mind-numbing slog to understand the state of any art in any technical field.
The best solution to many of these issues probably comes at public colleges. Imagine an open forum where students learn technical writing and legal skills by doing, and graduates with a few ideas have access to the space that is needed to make it happen. What stands in the way of this are turf battles and a general disinterest in intellectual property at most schools. I never learned about intellectual property law at Carnegie, and I suspect that it still isn’t taught in most places. It’s just that uninteresting.
So what are we left with? A lot of good ideas floating around that can’t make it past a number of hurdles that involve turf, legal wording, and good old fashioned tedium. None of this will be solved quickly, meaning that “innovation” is at the very least not a quick-fix to our situation. It may be a good to encourage new ideas, but we need a lot more than good words and a few bucks to do it.