The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published an in-depth series of stories this week on backlogs in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that everyone who is a part of San Diego’s innovation economy should read.

The Journal-Sentinel reporting shows that it is taking longer than ever for the office to issue patents, and the number of applications awaiting approval is above 1.2 million, triple the amount from a decade ago. The series also shined a light on the agency’s soaring rejection rate.

What this means is that innovations are being kept on the shelf instead of being catalysts for new businesses and industries at a time when the economy desperately needs more activity.

This excerpt from the first story in the two-part series crystallizes the harsh realities:

A 2005 Federal Reserve Bank study found that the largest factor in a state’s income growth is the volume of patents each state generates. Ranked by patents per capita, Wisconsin is 12% above the national average and 14th nationally.

The system amounts to a social compact: A patent shares advances in science and technology with the world in return for a temporary, exclusive right to make and sell something. A good patent delineates the exact limits of what an inventor wants to protect, which in turn fires the ingenuity of others to improve on it without encroaching. And the system influences every niche of the economy, from manufacturing to stem cells.

Patents “are essential instruments for an innovation-based economy,” said Bruce Lehman, director of the Patent Office in the mid-1990s. Neither Silicon Valley nor the Madison biotechnology industry would exist without patent protection, said Lehman, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from UW-Madison. “To advance science in a market economy, you have to have a system that permits you to capture property rights in inventions so investors will invest and the public gets the benefit,” Lehman said.

Yet the U.S. patent system has bogged down just as other fast-developing economies, such as China and India, have ratcheted up their efforts to innovate – and to protect their inventions. And because a patent carries legal force only in the nation that issued it, foreign inventors have added increasingly to the burden at the U.S. Patent Office.


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