Congress debates changing auto patents. Good news or bad?

Some Washington lawmakers are looking into changing patent regulations on car parts, which could have a drastic effect on auto manufacturers.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
This January 2012 file photo shows darkness falling on the US capitol buildijng. Members of the House of Representatives are debating changes to auto patent laws that could have drastic effects on car manufacturers.

When we think of patents, we often think of things like drugs and cell phones -- things perfected in high tech labs over many, many years. 

But patents and patent law affect nearly every part of our daily lives, from the design of our alarm clocks to the shape of our toothbrushes to the designer DNA found in some of our favorite foods.

And, of course, our car parts.

Now, some of our elected officials in Washington, D.C. are looking to change patent regulations on those car parts, which could have drastic consequences for automakers, repair shops, and the general public.

According to the Detroit News, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) has presented a bill to the House Judiciary Committee that would dramatically reduce the length of patents in the automotive industry.

Currently, patents for auto design and collision-repair parts last for 14 years -- about the same as in the medical field.

Under Issa's proposal, however, those patents would be valid for just 30 months.

Why the change? 

Issa claims that such changes to the patent law would protect car owners by allowing other companies to produce cheaper repair parts sooner. According to Issa, such parts are between 25% and 50% more expensive when they come from an automaker. 

Issa also claims that automakers now control 72% of the collision parts market.

The good, the bad

If you've ever had a car repaired, you know how costly the process can be. Fixing collision damage is especially frustrating, since the price of fenders, bumpers, mirrors, and other parts can be sky high. Issa's proposal could save consumers a fair chunk of change.

On the other hand, as automotive reps argue, Issa's bill dramatically devalues intellectual property. By slashing the length of time that designs are covered by patents, automakers have far less incentive to design them interestingly or well. (Pharmaceutical companies make similar arguments when bills are put forward to cut patent lengths on lifesaving drugs.)

And of course, automakers raise up the issue of safety, claiming that they produce sturdier parts than aftermarket suppliers.

Our take

We can see both points. We've been on the receiving end of hefty repair bills, and we would definitely appreciate the availability of cheaper repair parts -- especially those that seem to serve largely cosmetic purposes.

And 14 years for a design patent on auto parts does feel unduly long. Even though people are keeping their cars longer than ever, the average age of vehicles on the road hovers around 11 years. So, as the laws are now written, patents on parts outlive the cars they're meant for. 

On the other hand, one of the things that makes America truly great -- and perhaps the key to America's continued status as the world's #1 superpower, even though we outsource much of our labor -- is the value we place on creativity.

In China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and many other countries, children score far better on math and science tests than their American peers. So why is it that we remain at the top of the heap? Why is it that huge numbers of foreign students come to America to study at our universities?

It's because we value innovative thinking.

In America, it's not enough to know facts and figures (and given the increasing ubiquity of the web, that kind of thing will be even less important going forward, since we'll all be able to search for hard facts quickly and easily). No, in America, we value people who take those facts and figures and turn them into something interesting, useful, life-changing: smartphones, social networks, medical treatments, space travel.

The antithesis of that would be a country like China, which is making great strides on the world stage, but only via brute force, by marshaling its massive population and government resources to make things happen. To be sure, China is a power to be reckoned with, but if the country begins valuing intellectual property, that's when we'll be in serious trouble.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this -- especially if you work for a dealer, an automaker, or a repair shop. Drop us a line, or leave a note in the comments below.

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