Enabling Patentless Innovation
66 Pages Posted: 5 Jul 2013 Last revised: 8 Jun 2015
Date Written: February 10, 2014
Do patents promote innovation? Many in open innovation communities — or those that collaborate to create and make technology publicly available under permissive terms — have long argued that patents stifle rather than promote innovation. Indeed, it has become nearly conventional wisdom in open innovation circles that the patent system imposes undue burdens on open innovation communities in particular. This may be especially true because, for a variety of reasons, open innovation communities have traditionally failed to pursue patents on their technologies. Consequently, some argue that the best way for these communities to protect themselves is by bucking this trend and acquiring significant numbers of patents for defensive purposes. Some in open innovation communities have begun to follow this approach.
What remains underexplored in this discussion, however, is the extent to which patents actually threaten open innovation communities. Previous assessments treat these communities monolithically in terms of patent risk, but open innovation communities by definition consist of a broad spectrum of participants with distinct risk profiles. This Article disaggregates open innovation communities and assesses the actual risks that patents may pose to different categories of participants in those communities. It argues that several factors diminish the actual patent risks in some cases, at least as they are generally presented. However, the Article also highlights certain previously unexamined patent risks that arise based on incompatibilities between the decentralized nature of open innovation and the centralized nature of patent rights. These risks suggest that using patents to combat patent risks may not be a viable long-term strategy for open innovation communities. Based on these conclusions, the Article then assesses other possibilities for better reconciling the patent system with the phenomenon of open innovation. In particular, it suggests as one such possibility a two-track patent system that would grant open innovators an independent invention defense to patent infringement in exchange for an agreement not to assert patents except defensively. The Article concludes by suggesting that such a system would not only benefit open innovation communities, but may also help address broader concerns with the patent system as well.
Keywords: Patents, open source, innovation, intellectual property, patent trolls
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