In part 1 of The Patent Bargain, the basics of the patent system were laid down. We learned that, in Patent World, “new” may or may not mean “new.” Basically, we established that in a nutshell, you share your innovation with the world so that, in the future, others may flatter you by reproducing it, and in the mean time you and only you choose how your technology impacts the world.
You can license your invention to a large company, where it might be integrated into their latest products. Or perhaps you wish to form a company and sell products and services based on your patented technology. You can even go through the process of patenting your development and once that patent issues, go out into your backyard and bury it so no one can use your new technology. It’s yours and, subject to a few narrow exceptions, you can pretty much do whatever you want with the rights granted to you in a patent.
In some ways, obtaining a patent is also like a game of HORSE. For the uninitiated, HORSE is a basketball game where you first demonstrate a cool way of sinking a basket, a trick shot. Then your friends try to out do you by watching your trick and then performing a better trick. Your friends demonstrate their own way of improving on your original trick. In Patent World, you demonstrate your cool trick by describing, in your patent/patent application, your innovation in a way that other talented people can reproduce. Sometimes, those talented people are inspired to apply other advancements to your original innovation. That improvement can also be eligible for patent protection! In fact, of the eight million patents that have been issued to inventors by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, most of them have been for improvements on other technologies, rather than for fundamentally new innovations, like the first airplane! As a creative person, it is important to remember that clever improvements, whether they are intermediate steps in a larger project or a random thought about a way to do something a little better or more simply, are often very valuable and unique, just as the proverbial big light bulb idea may be!
Most people believe that the patent system is a work in progress, in terms of striking a balance between protecting the rights of creative people and organizations, encouraging the use of new technology, and ensuring continued technological improvement and development. Even Congress shares this belief; having recently passed the America Invents Act. This law is the largest reform to the patent system since 1952, when The Today Show first aired. The changes caused by the America Invents Act and how that may impact space-related technologies are the stuff of another post or five!
From a broader perspective, if you examine my game of HORSE analogy, it is easy to see that this process of demonstrating your innovation through a patent and then demonstrating your improvement on the original patent, or having someone else demonstrate their improvement, spurs creativity and innovation in the United States. This encouragement of continual technological innovation fulfills, at least in part, the Constitutional mandate of “promot[ing] the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”