At the recent Northern Kentucky Regional First LEGO League Robotics tournament, I marveled at the imagination and creativity displayed by so many young people. In these students, I see the spirit of ingenuity and a culture of invention that have been critical to our nation’s economic success for over two centuries. I was reminded of the competitions I participated in as a young inventor, and of the American spirit of innovation that inspired me to obtain 29 patents.
I often think about these young inventors when we debate so-called “patent reform” in Congress. For example, about a year ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill called the Innovation Act. As a patent holder, I was deeply concerned about the consequences of this bill, which was rushed to the House floor without adequate debate. Fortunately, the bill did not pass the Senate.
In my opinion, the Innovation Act threatens American inventors, particularly individual inventors and those working at small businesses and startups. The bill attempts to “fix” a few isolated abuses of the patent system, but instead it sets forth a comprehensive overhaul of the existing legal framework that compromises the rights of all legitimate inventors.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Innovation Act is the provision that makes it easier for corporations to keep shipping products even if a court finds reason to believe those products contain stolen inventions. When deciding whether to pay a fair license fee to the rightful inventors, or whether to steal a patented idea and risk a lawsuit, it is the threat of lost revenue that keeps the big companies honest.
In Article 1, Section 8 of our Constitution, the Founding Fathers (some of whom were inventors themselves), gave Congress the authority to protect the discoveries of inventors. Inventors like myself rely on this protection as we create new products. Without the strong congressional protection mandated by our Constitution, inventors and the investors who back them will lose confidence that their work and ideas will be safeguarded. This loss of confidence will cause invention and investment to wither.
Our system of patent protection is what sets the United States apart from nations like China and India. In those countries, theft of intellectual property (IP) is rampant, statutory protections for IP are weak or non-existent, and courts are notoriously hostile to small inventors. If we water down our patent system and give up our competitive advantage, America will cease to be a global hub for innovation.
If Congress recklessly weakens our patent system by pushing through a bill similar to last year’s Innovation Act, inventors’ very livelihoods will be threatened. Inventors will stop inventing, and as the role models for young inventors quietly fade into history, fewer young students will pursue this rewarding career path. A decade from now, Congress will lament the lack of interest among our nation’s youth in subjects like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, arrogantly unaware that Congress itself destroyed it.