By: Aryeh Helfgott | Business  | 

Reaching Patent no. 10,000,000

In a few months, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is expected to grant its 10 millionth utility patent. While the granting of such a patent may seem like a trivial event, it is in reality a significant milestone in human ingenuity.

In 1787, at the Constitutional Convention, the Framers embedded the Patent and Copyright Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8) into the Constitution:

“The Congress shall have 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.”

These words established the basis for a patent system designed to encourage inventors to create new inventions, as well as for them to disclose those inventions to the public. A patent is essentially a quid pro quo exchange between the inventor and the public. That is, the inventor gets the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention for 20 years, in exchange for disclosing the invention to the public. Disclosure of the invention reveals its mechanisms and methods to the public domain of knowledge, thereby spurring cumulative innovation.

The very first patent was granted to Samuel Hopkins in 1790 for improvements in the process of making potash, an ingredient used in fertilizer, and was signed by President George Washington. Since then, tons of patents have been granted to inventions, many of which were noteworthy and even revolutionary. For example, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (patent no. 72); Samuel Morse’s telegraph (patent no. 1647); Louis Pasteur’s “Improvement in Brewing Beer and Ale” (patent no. 135, 245); Thomas Edison’s electric lamp (patent no. 223, 898); Nikola Tesla’s electro-magnetic motor (patent no. 381,968); Wilbur and Orville Wright’s flying machine (patent no. 821,393); and Steve Jobs’ Apple iPod (patent no. 7,116,791). Without patent protection, it is possible that the inventors of such groundbreaking innovations would not have devoted their time and resources to research, nor would they have disclosed their detailed ideas to the public scientific community.  

Patents also dictate the success of entire industries. In the early 2000s, many biotech companies secured patents of specific human genes, as these isolated genetic sequences were used in a variety of therapeutic and diagnostic applications. Over time, however, questions were raised over whether human genes were in fact patentable under law. While the biotech companies argued that isolated genes were no different than any other isolated natural compound found in nature (e.g. aspirin), for which there are patents, the U.S. Supreme Court nonetheless ruled (Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, 2013) that all human genes were unpatentable products of nature. This invalidated tons of gene patents and created a significant setback to the biotech industry. A similar phenomenon occurred in the software industry, when where the Court rejected the patentability of certain kinds of software in in CLS Bank v. Alice in 2014.

It is clear, then, that individual inventions, and even entire industries, that benefit society are often driven by the existence of patents. It is for this reason that there is a sense of celebration that is warranted upon reaching as high a patent number as 10,000,000.

This celebration is of course not to say that the patent system, as it stands, is flawless. It is certainly not. There are what are known as “patent trolls”: people who obtain patents for enforcement purposes (in order to then receive a monetary settlement) but do not practice the patented invention. Patent trolls serve as the antithesis the entire goal of the patent system since they often leave innovative entities monetarily damaged.

Nevertheless, the patent system has been instrumental in driving innovation. Indeed, in honor of reaching the 10 millionth milestone, the USPTO has designed a brand new patent cover that will be implemented along with the issuing of the 10 millionth patent and has started a “Ten for 10 million” social media campaign to vote on the 10 most transformative patented inventions in history.

As the world looks forward to seeing the lucky invention that will be granted this historic patent, others have been a bit nervous. They fear that the addition of an eighth digit to patent numbers would crash the patent computer system in an “Y2K fashion.” But the truth is that there is no need for alarm: there is a patented computer technology to account for that.