Patents Are A Weak Measure of Innovation Activity

After not seeing the word patent in my daily information routine for a few weeks, I saw it twice today – first in an article titled Turning Patents Into ‘Invention Capital’ (in the NY Times) and then in Region Sustains Robust Patent Production in the WSJ.  Both stirred me up early this morning, but for different reasons.

If you are interested in patents, I encourage you to read Turning Patents Into ‘Invention Capital’ as I’m very interested in your reaction.  I’d love to hear what you think in the comments (anonymous is fine if you are concerned about attribution on this one.)  I have an opinion and this article didn’t add anything to my thoughts (which is partly why I’m looking for yours as I’m curious what others think.)  So I hit Ctrl-W and went to the next tab in Chrome.

The title of Region Sustains Robust Patent Production was fine (and yes it refers to Silicon Valley), but the first sentence in the article made me nuts:

“The economic slump has yet to damp innovation in Silicon Valley, at least not by one widely followed measure: patent production.”

It’s a short article that basically states that Silicon Valley received a similar percentage of utility patents granted in the US in 2009 that it did in 2008 and 2007. 

“Silicon Valley denizens received 13,231, or 7.9%, of the total 167,350 "utility" patents granted in the U.S. in 2009, according to IFI Patent Intelligence, a unit of Wolters Kluwer Health that analyzes patent data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. That is on par with Silicon Valley’s share of patents nationwide in 2008 and 2007, according to IFI.”

Other than the factual statement, there is no possible way the conclusion made in the first paragraph can be extracted from this data.  The primary flaw here is that patents take many years to be granted.  The number of patents granted in 2009 has nothing to do with the innovation activity in 2009! 

Now, I don’t believe that patent activity correlates to innovation.  While this might have been true in the 1970’s, there are so many factors in today’s broken patent system that undermine this.  The article even points one out in the list sentence:

“Like many tech firms, Cisco offers some financial incentives to employees who file and receive patents, he (Tony Bates, SVP at Cisco) says.”

The “pay to file” dynamic is a mechanism that undermines the integrity of the patent system.  Here’s the issue: assume I am a huge company that pays my engineers on average $100k / year.  I offer $1k for every patent filing they make during work time.  So, as an engineer, you can increase your compensation by 1% for every patent you file (forget about whether it actually gets granted).  As the large company, I’ve got a huge legal machine in place to file the patents – all you need to do as an engineer is going through a prescribed process, write up a bunch of stuff that gets dropped into the patent application, and come to a few meetings to review the patent application.  Is that worth an additional 1% of your comp regardless of the quality of the application?  Sure! 

Regardless of whether you think patents are useful, this is just such a crummy indication of “innovation”.