Rick Merritt (04/20/2009 12:00 AM EDT)
It's time for engineers to stage an intellectual property strike.
Stop filing patents. Refuse to sign employment contracts that give your employer sole title to your inventions. Don't participate in any due diligence efforts on patent portfolios.
Engineers need to organize if this IP strike is to be effective. That will require creating a new organization.
Existing lobby groups on patent issues in the electronics industry represent the views of specific sets of companies, not engineers. Even the IEEE is so diversified in its base that it admits it has not been able to form a crisp consensus on issues like patent reform.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying engineers should stop work in the midst of a recession of historic proportions. I stand with those who say we design ourselves out of downturns by creating compelling products. What I'm saying is, hands off anything to do with patents.
I admit this is an extreme position and one engineers are unlikely to take up, but that doesn't mean a patent strike is the wrong thing to do. In fact, it could be very right.
The patent system is broken, and someone needs to call attention to that fact to spark real change. As the creators of the technology, engineers have the power to command that attention, if they choose to use it.
This is a historic moment to send a message that the patent system needs fixing, because influential leaders are listening. Patent reform is front and center in Congress, and an administration that ran on change is poised to appoint a new director for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Patents are supposed to capture innovations in ways that compel engineers to read them. They are meant to spur designers to creative action, inspiring them to develop novel work-arounds or to license ideas that are too good to pass up.
Sadly, the reality today is just the opposite. Bad policies and practices have coalesced around patents. In this week's cover story, we call it mad patent disease .
Corporate legal departments tell engineers which patents they can and can't read. Sometimes engineers are told not to read patents at all, lest they be accused of deliberately infringing someone's IP.
Meanwhile, businesspeople of all stripes pressure engineers to file patent applications for every idea. That has spawned a business of litigation and licensing that charges for portfolios by the pound. Companies now wield patents strategically to charge others for the freedom to innovate. In this sick world, patents don't spark innovation, they inhibit it.
Quantity has replaced quality, and that has created a mess. Legal departments settle infringement cases in part because they can't afford to pay anyone to provide informed opinions about all the patents asserted against them. Thus, portfolios that contain a lot of junk can still command a premium.
As the premiums rise, more people file more patents to defend against the madness or to get their share of the IP bucks. The result is a patent office up to its ears in a backlog approaching a million applications, sitting in a pile three years deep.
Patents should have a reasonable value for their owners and users. They should be available to all on a timely basis so they can encourage innovation, not stifle it.
Engineers need to speak up in a loud and clear voice about what's wrong. If they don't, I suspect the lawyers and corporate managers who have gotten us into today's mess will continue to build on the upside-down bubble market for patents they have created.