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research to enhance innovation. The patent system requires reform of four specific kinds:

  • Provide the US Patent and Trademark Office with sufficient resources to make intellectual-property protection more timely, predictable, and effective.

  • Reconfigure the US patent system by switching to a “first-inventor-to-file” system and by instituting administrative review after a patent is granted. Those reforms would bring the US system into alignment with patent systems in Europe and Japan.

  • Shield research uses of patented inventions from infringement liability. One recent court decision could jeopardize the long-assumed ability of academic researchers to use patented inventions for research.

  • Change intellectual-property laws that act as barriers to innovation in specific industries, such as those related to data exclusivity (in pharmaceuticals) and those which increase the volume and unpredictability of litigation (especially in information-technology industries).

The US patent system is the nation’s oldest intellectual-property policy.10,11 A sound system for patents enhances social welfare by encouraging invention and the dissemination of useful technical information.12 It also provides incentives for investment in commercialization that promotes economic growth, creates jobs, and advances other social goals.13

Balance is a critical element of a sound patent system. Without adequate intellectual-property protection, incentives to create are compromised. On the other hand, too much protection slows the application of valuable ideas. Thus, it is imperative that the US Patent and Trademark


The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), mandated by the US Constitution, awarded its first patent on July 31, 1790, to Samuel Hopkins for an improvement in “making Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process.”


Article I, section 8 of the Constitution reads, “Congress shall have power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Available at:


The USPTO offers this simplified definition: “A patent is an exclusive right granted for an invention, which is a product or a process that provides, in general, a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem….” In addition, a patent item must be sufficiently different from what has been used or described before that it may be said to be non-obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the area of technology related to the invention. For example, the substitution of one color for another or changes in size, are ordinarily not patentable. Available at:


M. Myers, quoted in Changes Needed to Improve Operation of US Patent System. National Research Council News Release. Washington, DC: The National Academies, April 19, 2004.

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