Do Patents Hinder or Help Innovation?

by Stephen Shapiro

Some time ago I received a newsletter that had 10 wacky patents. Here’s my favorite:

Centrifugal ForceApparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force: With this invention, the mother-to-be is strapped down to a table that is then is spun to allow centrifugal force to take its course and aid in childbirth. This invention by a husband and wife team was patented in 1965, but surprisingly hasn’t caught on in maternity wards around the country.

This raises an interesting question. Do patents help or hinder innovation?

The intent of patents was to protect those who make large investments in innovation. For example, a pharmaceutical company that spends billions of dollars on drug development and testing needs protection. Clearly these patents help innovation. No one would invest that much money if someone could come in and replicate their idea.

But what about patents that protect ideas; concepts where no real investment has been made, other than the expenditure of a few brain cells. Do these patents help or hinder innovation?

I have a patent pending for my “Innovation Personality Poker.” My investment to date has been thousands, not millions of dollars. The main cost has been the design and manufacturing of the cards (and legal fees). But the patent is a process patent; it is the methodology I am protecting. Therefore, the investment I am protecting is my time. Is this really a proper use of patents?

What about patents where no investment has been made.

I have an idea that I may patent. It could save the planet through reduced landfills and reduced reliance on petroleum. My investment in this has been limited to thinking. If I pursue the patent, it might stop others from developing a similar invention. Wouldn’t this stifle innovation? If this idea is so great, shouldn’t we stimulate its development?

What are your thoughts? Do patents help or hinder innovation?

For more on the patent topic, check out Braden Kelley’s interview with Jackie Hutter.

P.S. I will probably not patent my idea, but instead will find a manufacturer to partner with.

Innovation and ImprovisationStephen Shapiro is the author of three books, a popular innovation speaker, and is the Chief Innovation Evangelist for Innocentive, the leader in Open Innovation.

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