Patents and Innovation

There’s an interesting debate playing out at the New York Times about the role of patents in fast-moving innovative industries (like 3D printing…). Joe Nocera has an interview with famed U.S. Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner, in which Posner suggests that patents make far more sense in the pharmaceutical industry, where innovations are costly to develop but easy to replicate. However, Posner argues that patents are less well-suited to technologies like mobile phones:

“When you are dealing with products that have very short lives, you often don’t need patents because by the time competitors wise up, you’ve moved on,” Posner says. Indeed, in such industries, patents — which are primarily intended to encourage innovation — have the exact opposite effect: they discourage innovation. The smartphone industry, meanwhile, led by the ever-litigious Apple, is spending more time and effort filing lawsuits over patents infringement than it is coming up with innovative new products.

But in a letter response, Donald Rosenberg, Executive VP of mobile technology leader Qualcomm, argues that patents are necessary to encourage investment and foster innovation in the mobile realm too:

The so-called smartphone wars are a myth propagated by those with an economic interest in tipping the scale toward those who build on inventions versus those who invent.

Innovations in communications have dramatically changed our lives. Our patent system has played a critical role in attracting investment and protecting the fruits of these efforts. Let’s not overreact to a momentary uptick in commercial disputes as competitors seek to outmaneuver one another. If we do, we risk irreparable harm to our knowledge-based economy.

It’s worth noting that Qualcomm is almost obsessively proud of its 13,000+ patent portfolio – it has a special display wall devoted to its patents at its San Diego HQ. And, as far as this blog is concerned, 3D printers seem more like mobile phones than pharmaceuticals… so who’s right, Posner, or Rosenberg?

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