US Patent Office; Why the pats are pending
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In his hunt, the examiner includes not only foreign rocking chair patents but also the world's technical literature. Uncle Sam is stricter than most nations in insisting that patents be granted only on truly new contributions to society. Isaac Fleischmann, director of information services for the Patent Office, puts it this way: "If the invention was described in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that information is available to our examiners, you can't get a US patent on it."Skip to next paragraph
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Is the purpose of a patent system to protect inventors? Most people would probably say yes. but framers of the Constitution provided that protection only as the means to a much broader end. National progress, they maintained, would be based on a sharing of knowledge, not the hoarding of it in trade secrets. So they gave Congress "power to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."
A patent is in effect a bargain that promises: Share with us what you have invented and for 17 years the exclusive right to exploit it will be yours. So the system is not designed for the sake of the inventor but to promote science and art through disclosure. Until the day a patent is issued, an invention is private property. The moment it is issued, the idea is public knowledge for the benefit of all.
A major advantage is the prevention of duplication. Everybody is alerted to what the latest ideas are. Knowing what someone else has designed should stir an inventor off in other directions. Or it may suggest to inventors how the work of competitors can be improved or how the same thing can be achieved in a different way. Thus one idea builds on another. This keeps the inventor of the original device always looking for ways to improve it. Such churning and competition spur invention on.
Mr. Fleischmann's 35 years with the Patent Office have taught him that "whenever there is a national emphasis in a specific area of need, there is greater inventive activity in those areas."
"What is an invention?" he asks. "It is meeting of a need for the solution to a problem. America is a nation of improvisers and people who want to make living conditions better.
"Our early period was agrarian. Almost from the very beginning there was growth in population with a need for food. . . . So inventions right up through the middle of the last century were mainly in the agricultural field. They just grew and grew and grew because of need."
Not long ago the emphasis was on environmental inventions, still an active and important field. Now it's on energy -- windmills, solar cells, etc.
"I dare say that in 10 or 15 years from now what we think are the latest developments in solar and other fields will be old hat," Mr. Fleischmann says. "Areas we are unaware of today will be explored. . . . I believe that a generation from now perhaps oil will be obsolete. Faced with a problem, we have got to solve the problem. This has been our history. I hope it will always maintain this impetus for development."
Between 1961 and 1970, the number of patent applications received each year rose steadily from 85,000 to 106,000. But during the 1970s this growth flattened out, reaching only 107,400 10 years later.