Friday, 16 September 2011

America Invents No More

“Sure, free riders can have a great run, up to the
point that they run out of creators to steal from.”
- Lawrence Ebert, IPBIZ blog

You might be aware that the American Senate recently passed what it calls the “America Invents Act”—more accurately described by some as the America Invents-No-More Act, “which will stifle U.S. innovation, growth of new American businesses, and long-term job growth in America.” In short, it is a disaster.

This legislation should more appropriately be called the ‘Leahy-Smith Trade Secret Protection Act of 2011,’ because it will encourage and reward keeping America’s innovation and new discoveries secret.  This concept of secrecy attacks the very foundation of our patent system put into place by our Founding Fathers.

In response, our regular Guest Poster and patent specialist Dale Halling explains what real patent reform would have looked like, and why.

I have written a number of times on what real patent reform would actually accomplish.  One of the major problems with our patent system is that your rights stop at the border.  This is different than any other property right.  For instance, if I drive my car across the border into Canada, I still own my car.  If I drive my book across the border into Canada I still own both the physical version of my book and the copyrights to my book.  But, if I drive my invention across the border I no longer own my invention.  This situation existed for copyrights 150 years ago and it was recognized that there was no logical reason for copyrights to end at a countries border and it discouraged the publication of domestic authors.  The same is true of patents.

I suggest a system of reciprocity in which an inventor who obtains a patent in Canada, for example, has patent rights in the U.S. and vice versa.  This would decrease the duplication of efforts across patent offices around the world and significantly reducing the present backlog in the U.S. patent office.  More importantly, it would increase the value of a patent and increase the chance of obtaining funding for technology startups.

A friend of mine, Jim Lauffenburger, explains in practical terms why this important.  His company has found trade secrets to be a much more useful tool, because of the lack of patent reciprocity.

It is interesting that in my company, EM Microelectronics, the best method for protection is definitely keeping a secret, not filing for patent protection. (And keeping those secrets is extremely challenging and difficult.)

Why, you ask?
Because we are unable to enforce patent protection in Asia, and unable to prevent literal copying.

We spend man-decades of highly skilled (and expensive) engineering time to design a new IC. The IC goes into mass production in some successful product. It gets rapidly reverse engineered in Asia. Nearly direct copies of the part soon appear, and can be priced at only silicon-cost, without the huge development costs.

We visited several of these Asian “design centers” to ask them how they do it, under the guise of possibly utilizing their services. But even that guise was not really necessary, because they were proud of their “design method”: They do a layer-by-layer stripping and micro-photographs, and create a direct schematic from that. They convert the digital logic into standard cells, and then re-Place-and-Route using “their own IP” (the standard cells). For the analog portions, they use the layers as-is, but rotate or flip them 90 degrees so that it looks different. Then end result is what they claim is their own IC and their own IP, and it looks quite a bit different from our ICs. But, during that entire process they were simply “turning the copy crank”; not actually designing anything from concept.

Fighting this copying at a trademark level won’t work (it looks different). Fighting this at a patent level is extremely time consuming and expensive.

Thus, the only way to fight it is to try to hide features and make very special implementations that don’t work correctly in a layer-by-layer copy. (This of course, is very difficult, and expensive, and MUST be kept fully secret.)

This shows (to me) once again, that most of our law (and society) only works if the we all generally agree on the moral and ethical basis undergirding our actions and laws. Once that is lost, chaos follows. (And “messes get created” by all the reams of laws generated to try to make up for the lost ethical basis.)

While Jim’s company has made a logical decision under the present law, part of the reason for having a patent system is to encourage the spread of technical information.  Trade secrets inhibit this dissemination of technical information and slow down technological and economic progress.  The America Invents Act does nothing to solve this problem.

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