The Power Of Patents

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Today the great majority of patents granted by the U.S. Patent Office are awarded to large industrial concerns, and the applications arrive at the office’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, in increasing numbers. The office, which has grown from a handful of souls two centuries ago to some thirty-two hundred people today (about half of whom are examiners), is perennially swamped, and both potential inventors and hopeful manufacturers keep complaining that the process takes too long. But recent reforms have sped things up, and inventors today have to wait only about eighteen months before receiving their protection. In 1989 the Patent Office received around 163,000 applications and issued some 102,000 patents, an all-time record. In the past decade the legal jungle through which patent lawyers have had to hack their way has been considerably cleared out by the creation, in 1982, of a special appeals court in Washington that focuses only on patent cases, a welcome innovation.

Haloid had to work desperately to protect its priceless Xerox patents while developing a machine to use them.

Meanwhile, the industrial titans battle one another while virtually ignoring the lone individual inventor, whoever and wherever he or she is. The swiftly moving computer industry has engendered an entirely new set of patent disputes and related questions, many of them with international repercussions. So have other technologies. In 1987 the Corning Glass Works won a patent-infringement suit against Japan’s mighty Sumitomo Electric Industries over the design of optical fibers, forcing Sumitomo to shut down its fiber-optic plant. Patent Office examiners today have to be ready to deal with such matters as laser beams, nuclear fusion, and the creations of biotechnology. It all comes under the heading of promoting the progress of science and the useful arts. The chances are that the sheer extent of it would seem quite unbelievable to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the other founders of the system if they could be here to contemplate it.

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