The fallacy about patents

Raw numbers may impress, but IBM's Nicholas Donofrio says the focus should instead be on the application of invention as a meaningful measure of success.

3 min read
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently revealed its list of the top 10 patent holders in 2003. But I'd like to suggest that the numbers themselves are irrelevant.

It would be naive for any company (or for that matter, any country) to assume that amassing patents for patents' sake is a meaningful measure of success. Invention only matters when it positively transforms an institution, a business, a society or our lives. Rather than numbers, it's the application of invention--coupled with deep insight, experience and even intuition--that results in genuine innovation.

In recent years, it's been fashionable in some circles (especially among those who drank too deeply from the heady brews of the dot-com era) to suggest that innovation is waning. These people couldn't be further from the truth.

Right now we live in an era of unprecedented innovation in every sector of human endeavor. The remarkable images coming back to us from the Mars Rover are but one brilliant example of what the fertile minds of our best scientists and thinkers can accomplish. In my industry alone, developments in grid computing, wireless connectivity and data analysis are transforming everything from genomic research to weather forecasting to electric utilities management.

As our economy begins to recover, it's important that we continue to guide and nurture this spirit of American innovation. More than ever, our policies and investments as a nation must create an environment that fosters innovation.

In particular, the new forces shaping the global marketplace suggest that we address a series of tough questions about our priorities:

• Are we doing enough with education programs to encourage our children's interest in careers in math, sciences and engineering? Graduate degrees in these disciplines are down about 25 percent for the past decade, even as the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century projects that by 2008 the technology-driven economy will add 5.6 million U.S. jobs in the health sciences and computer industries that require these advanced skills.

• What skills are needed to advance our country's leadership in life sciences, energy, new materials or nanotechnology? U.S. universities need to move quickly to identify and develop advanced programs in the new disciplines that are emerging as a result of advances in information technology--and recognize that the key to success will not be found within established fields, but from new forms of collaboration that span multiple industries, professions and fields.

• How can we move beyond traditional notions of R&D and intellectual property creation to nurture the intersections that lead to real innovation? Along those same lines, how do we measure innovation? A group of influential business and academic leaders (including IBM CEO Sam Palmisano) is committed to a broad-based national innovation initiative that will study critical aspects of this challenge and present concrete recommendations at a summit meeting later this year.

Proposed congressional legislation that would end this diversion of user-paid fees to other agencies is the right step.
• Are we ready to rethink how we protect and reward those who spend time and resources to create something new and better? Currently, a sizable percentage of patent application fees are diverted away from an overburdened U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. When you consider that the licensing of U.S. patents contributed more than $150 billion to our economy in 2001, proposed congressional legislation that would end this diversion of user-paid fees to other agencies is the right step. IBM and nearly 100 other companies and 28 associations are supporting it--even though this legislation will cost us money.

The innovative application of information technology is opening up breathtaking opportunities for social and economic progress, well beyond what was imaginable just 10 years ago. Even after nearly four decades in the business, I've never been more excited about those opportunities or the potential for innovators to improve the world in which we live.

But it's crucial to keep one overarching idea in mind: Throughout history, even as technologies have driven periods of extraordinary achievement that were later identified as revolutions--from the printing press, to the telephone, to flight, and most recently to the Internet--it wasn't really the technology itself that created the revolution. It was the innovative thinking of the people who figured out how best to apply it.