Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate


Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

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Does Empirical Mean Pertaining to Empires?

Non-obviousness and enablement are the two complementary aspects of the idea that a patent has social value: without the patent a person of ordinary skill cannot practice an invention, but with the patent they can. But how do we know if and when this is true?

The answer is rather disheartening. Non-obviousness is tested by how an examiner feels about claims. We noted in the previous post that this is a strange and short-sighted way to think about an invention, but what's worse is that the when real world provides us a falsification of the examiner's decision, it is treated as a crime. When a patent has been granted, and then another person discovers and practices the claimed invention, they can be sued for infringement, even if they can demonstrate that they had no knowledge of the patent and no other means of deriving their result from its inventors. Upon first glance this is a rather bizarre result, since the fact that another person has discovered the invention unaided means that the first part of the patent compact has been shown to be inapplicable: the patent was not needed to practice the invention. The invention was obvious, the examiner got it wrong, and the patent is invalid. But that's not the way the law works. So not only do we not test the belief in non-obviousness during examination, we willfully ignore subsequent evidence that the examination was incorrect. [1]

Enablement is worse. It plays no role in examination and usually also in litigation. The America Invents act has even abandoned the requirement that the best mode of practice known to the inventor be disclosed, since lack of such disclosure no longer has any effect on validity. This is a puzzling result for an engineer (like me) who actually makes things, because we know from long and painful experience that there are lots of good ideas but very few that actually work the way you think they will. Attorneys and judges basically assume that everything is ok when enough text has been recorded, even if the text is gibberish. This is because they never have to ship product.

There's no reason for this situation, other than the legal profession's aversion to empirical data. For a brief period in the 19th century, inventors were required to provide a working model with their application. The practice was terminated because the patent office ran out of room for all the stuff, not because it was a bad idea. A patent applicant is asking for a monopoly. We don't have to give it to them. The burden should be on them to PROVE by empirical testing that they have satisfied the two complementary requirements for receiving their right to exclude.

This isn't that hard to envision. The European Patent Office presents the following standard for judging inventiveness:

"Is there any teaching in the prior art, as a whole, that would, not simply could, have prompted the skilled person, faced with the objective technical problem formulated when considering the technical features not disclosed by the closest prior art, to modify or adapt said closest prior art while taking account of that teaching [the teaching of the prior art, not just the teaching of the closest prior art], thereby arriving at something falling within the terms of the claims, and thus achieving what the invention achieves?"

So all we have to do is validate the "would, not could" standard by getting some folks together, giving them the problem, and seeing what they do in fact come up with -- and then handing them the patent and seeing if it makes a difference. In the next post we'll present some more details about how to do this, why we ought to, and where to use the resulting knowledge.

NOTES 1: A "prior rights" defense is now allowed in the US when the invention in question has been in use by the accused infringer prior to the filing of the accusing patent. The user retains the right to use the invention, but the patent is still not invalidated, even though it was shown to be so obvious that someone invented it before the person who filed.


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