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Breaking America’s Patent Stalemate

Patents are intended to disclose information about new technologies and who owns the rights to them, but they often fail on both counts. The good news is that the United States Patent and Trademark Office can address both shortcomings without waiting for congressional action.

STANFORD – Economic growth is increasingly reliant on technology-based industries. That has made reforming the US patent system a subject of renewed focus – and of a contentious and deadlocked debate.

Many patent owners are lobbying to remove limits on eligible inventions, but opposition from other stakeholders, including several software firms, has stalled proposed legislation. Reformers similarly disagree on whether “patent trolls” – firms whose only business is filing patent-infringement lawsuits – are a drag on truly innovative companies, or whether efforts to combat trolls have weakened the US patent system and innovation. The critical role of innovation in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened such concerns.

In a recent policy proposal, we argue that there currently is little credible evidence to support strengthening or weakening patent protection, such as by modifying patent-eligibility standards. Nonetheless, the US patent system can still be improved through more modest changes that have stronger empirical support.

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