By Roger Morris
Special to Delaware Business Times
The U.S. patent system is under attack, said Sen. Chris Coons and Patent and Trademark Office Director Andrei Iancu during a meeting of business intellectual property experts at Agilent Technologies last month.
The threat comes from critics in the fast-moving technology business sector — which finds the system cumbersome — and those who charge that strong patents create monopolies that don’t act in the public interest, said Coons.
Coons in March introduced the bipartisan Support Technology and Research for Our Nation’s Growth (STRONG) Patents Act, which seeks to enforce the current patent system.
“I tell my colleagues that we don’t want to destroy the patent system that has worked so well for us at the behest of one industry,” he said. At the same time, he warned, “Don’t expect the bill to move in this Congress.”
Coons, a former in-house counsel for W.L. Gore, is well-known for his support of companies in the InnovationSpace. He also recently co-sponsored the Music Modernization Act, which streamlines how streaming services pay musical artists.
Iancu urged a more positive public attitude toward intellectual property protection. “Young people should regard inventors as heroes who have changed humanity,” he said. “Who wants to grow up to be a patent troll?”
“Patents incentivize competitors to make something better to invent around what the first patent locks up,” he added. “Patents are a perpetual innovation machine.”
Helen Stimson, president and CEO of the Delaware BioScience Association, which sponsored the event, told the audience, “Patent protection is the lifeblood of innovation, absolutely critical to research and development. If a pharmaceutical company spends a billion dollar in R&D to develop a new drug, then why would they want to just give the patents away?”
Coons said compulsory licensing initiatives, which force patented technology into the public domain, threaten the system as well, especially the pharmaceutical industry.
Iancu noted that a continuing problem for the Patent and Trademark Office is granting attack-proof patents due the mountain of information revolving around “prior art,” or evidence that the intellectual idea behind a potential patentable invention is already known.
“There is a rapidly growing body of prior art because today everyone is publishing everything all of the time,” he said. “It’s like a giant haystack, and it’s getting harder and harder to find the needle.”
This causes a huge problem, Iancu said, for overworked PTO examiners. But nevertheless, he said, “We need to do a better job in narrowing the gap between prior art when the patent is issued and prior art presented when the patent is challenged in court.”
David Glasscock, who directs DuPont’s Global Science & Innovation Portfolio, said he was attending the meeting to see “what is being done to strengthen the robustness of intellectual property rights globally.”
Other attendees were concerned with the needs of both small established and small startup companies. “I want to see how we can reduce the costs of patents,” said Gann Xu, Head of Intellectual Property and Legal Affairs for ANP Technologies Inc. “The Patent Office gets all of its funding from fees, which becomes very expensive for small companies like ours.”
Chris Yochim, chairman of Delaware Bio and head of business development at National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), said that, “Every project needs to have an IP plan to protect its innovations, both in informing them on how to get patents and then how to protect them.”
“We’re concerned about how our patents can be protected worldwide,” said Stephen Streatfield, director of research and development and scientific affairs at Fraunhofer USA Inc., Center for Molecular Biotechnology. “Sen. Coons has a lot of experience in this area, and I want to hear what he has to say.”
The meeting concluded with a small ceremony that was perhaps indicative of both the importance of the American patent system and the role Delaware plays in scientific innovation.
Dr. Siu-Tat Chui of the University of Delaware was formally awarded U.S. Patent #10,018,507 for an improved electromagnetic detector.