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Carl B. Horton: Patent Protection Makes All The Difference

By Carl Horton November 30, 2012

The chief intellectual property counsel for GE argues that patent protection provides a crucial incentive to innovate.

Our world is rapidly evolving.  We aspire to be more connected and efficient.  We demand technology that is smarter and adaptable.  Today, innovation is increasingly based on a digital framework whose backbone is comprised of computer implemented inventions.  A solid foundation for innovators to protect software and other computer implemented inventions is essential to enabling investments that translate into jobs and a knowledge-driven economy.

What’s at stake?  Software advances can unlock solutions to society’s biggest problems.  These innovations can improve healthcare by enhancing medical decision support, increase energy efficiency to preserve our resources, and boost competitiveness by making us more productive.  Yet patents that protect investments in these areas are increasingly under attack.  In fact in many parts of the world, it is difficult or impossible to obtain patent protection for software.

Inventors and technology providers should have the freedom to develop their ideas in the best way possible without worrying about a design decision’s impact on patent eligibility.  Patent protection enhances certainty in the marketplace, enabling its holders to realize the value of their innovation upon success in the marketplace. And the ability to achieve a return on investment should not be diminished merely because an invention takes place entirely within a computer.  Software is a powerful tool that can make technology more accessible and affordable for everyone. But by restricting the ability to patent computer implemented inventions, such benefits are threatened.

Many of the most important technology advances in the near future will be the products of Big Data and the Industrial Internet.  Imagine the investment required to analyze massive quantities of information to transform it into practical intelligence.  And it’s value to society. New paths to cure disease, make technology more affordable by extending life or uptime, or to reduce resource consumption, will all be possible – if the ability for innovators to recoup their investments remains intact.

Consider what David Kappos, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office, recently said about software patents:

“Software patents, like all patents, are a form of innovation currency. They are also ecosystem enablers, and job creators. The innovation protected by software patents is highly integrated with hardware. All of it must remain eligible for protection… Whenever breakthrough technologies come onto the scene, market players find themselves joined in the marketplace by new entrants. The first instinct of the breakthrough innovators is to bring patents into play. This is not only understandable, it is appropriate. Those who invest in breakthrough innovation have a right to expect others to respect their resultant IP.” 

And patents can make all the difference. Think about the start-up looking to secure financing to implement their revolutionary idea. Having a patent provides more confidence to investors, making it easier to fund the venture. Or an academic who devises a powerful data mining technique and can license the resulting patent to a firm that has the right resources and skills to implement it. And what about a company who wants to protect their technology advances? Without patent protection, they are more likely to keep it under wraps, relying on trade secret protection instead of sharing it with the public, slowing down follow-on innovation.

Software innovation, while perhaps a less tangible medium for innovation than its counterparts, plays a pivotal role in our increasingly digital society.  Advances in software can have an enormous impact on our lives – connecting us, keeping us healthy, and supporting our competitiveness.  These are all admirable objectives that will strengthen society as a whole, only possible if we are willing to invest in them. And patents facilitate that investment, in all technical disciplines, by providing a crucial incentive to innovate.

Carl Horton is Vice President and Chief Intellectual Property Counsel for GE.