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The Teaching Function of Patents

Sean B. Seymore

Vanderbilt University - Law School

February 24, 2010

Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 621-669, 2010
Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2009-03

In theory, a patent serves the public good because the disclosure of the invention brings new ideas and technologies to the public and induces inventive activity. But while these roles inherently depend on the ability of the patent to disseminate technical knowledge, the teaching function of patents has received very little attention. Indeed, when the document publishes, it can serve as a form of technical literature. Because patents can, at times, communicate knowledge as well as, or better than, other information sources, patents could become a competitive source of technical information. Presently, however, patents are rarely viewed in this manner. There are several reasons for this, including the lack of a working example requirement and the pervasive use of ambiguous or opaque language.

My primary objective is to transform patents into readable, teaching documents. Importantly, if patents are to compete with the technical literature, then they must provide the same quality of teaching. For this to happen, two things must occur. First, at least for complex inventions, an applicant must prove, through adequate detail, that the claimed invention has been constructed and works for its intended purpose. Second, applicants must be allowed to draft the document using clear and concise language, without the fear of litigation troubles. To achieve both, I contend that working examples should replace language as the principal measure of claim scope. To implement this idea, I propose a new examination protocol which gives the U.S. Patent Office the ability to request working examples when the disclosure’s teaching appears dubious. In exploring criticisms, I argue that, in contrast to the current disclosure framework, which can itself thwart innovation, the proposed regime will produce more technically robust patents, which will make it easier for subsequent inventors to improve upon existing patented technology, promote the diffusion of knowledge across disciplines, and serve as a driver for more creative innovation.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 50

Keywords: patent law, innovation, disclosure, intellectual property, technology, invention, information

JEL Classification: O31, O32, O33, O34, O38, O40

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Date posted: March 3, 2009 ; Last revised: August 27, 2012

Suggested Citation

Seymore, Sean B., The Teaching Function of Patents (February 24, 2010). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 621-669, 2010; Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2009-03. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1352044

Contact Information

Sean B. Seymore (Contact Author)
Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )
131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
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