Back in the good old days, there was basically only one way to get rich.
You invented something. And then you sold it for money.
(“Invent something” is pretty loosely defined here.)
But guess what, kiddos? There’s a brand new way of cashing in that’s taking America by storm. And the best part is, you don’t even have to, like, invent anything.
Just apply for some super-vague patents!
Patents are basically copyrights on ideas. You can also get them for things you can hold in your hand, but patents on things you can actually hold in your hand is so 20th century!
Now, for this to work, you have to make sure your patents are super-broad and vague so that they encompass pretty much anything you can think of.
Did you do it? Nope. Vaguer. Vaguer. OK, good.
Now sue the pants off the people who actually invent things that could potentially kinda sorta be covered by your super-vague patents but are too poor and/or skittish to fight you in court!
It’s called “patent trolling.”
You may have heard John Oliver talk about it on his show.
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While Oliver makes some fantastic points about how ordinary people and small businesses get railroaded by companies that make their living suing people for patent infringement, he leaves one big thing out.
Threatening innovators with huge lawsuits and hoping they settle out of fear isn’t just one of the shadiest ways of doing business imaginable.
It’s also a huge roadblock to technological and economic progress.
Remember how in 1875, we didn’t have cars? Or planes? Or mass-produced electric lightbulbs? And then, within 30 years, we had all those things?
(Also zeppelins. How could I forget zeppelins?)
That was because people thought, “Hey! Why don’t I invent this really cool thing that doesn’t exist already so that I can make a ton of money.”
But now, all the people who would otherwise be inventing all the cool stuff are saying to themselves, “Hey! Why don’t I not invent anything because if I do, I’m just going to get sued by someone who claims to hold the patent on it already.”
Don’t take it from me. Take it from this super-dense paragraph about how, despite a booming market and high demand, companies have stopped developing software for storing medical images.
“Why, precisely when the market for their product had just taken off, would companies stop innovating? An explanation comes from Catherine Tucker, an economist at MIT who has studied the medical IT sector. In an unpublished study, she shows that the slowdown in R&D occurred as a result of litigation by a company whose primary reason for existing is to acquire the rights to others’ inventions and file patent claims against producers of related products — a patent troll. Tucker’s study is, to date, one of the best pieces of quantitative evidence of the broken state of America’s patent system, a critical concern not just for improving health care but for encouraging the innovation that’s needed to ensure future economic prosperity.” — Ray Fisman, Slate, April 9, 2012
Or this one, about how companies named in a patent infringement lawsuit are more likely to limit research and development spending.
“Researchers from Harvard and the University of Texas recently examined R&D spending of publicly listed firms that had been sued by patent trolls. They compared firms where the suit was dismissed, representing a clear win for the defendant, to those where the suit was settled or went to final adjudication (typically much more costly). As in the previous paper, this comparison helped them isolate the effect of lawsuits from other factors. They found that when lawsuits were not dismissed, firms reduced their R&D spending by $211 million and reduced their patenting significantly in subsequent years. The reduction in R&D spending represents a 48% decline.” — James Bessen, Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2014
(Honestly, we’re too bored to fight over this one.)
But the last version of it never came to a vote in the Senate, due in large part to pressure from lobbyists for trial lawyers.
If this whole terrible thing gets you steamed up and you’d like to translate your anger into productivity instead of deep self-loathing at your own powerlessness, what are you waiting for? You have a senator!
I would link their number for you, but only you know where you live. So go Google it!