Last November, the United States Patent Office issued patent number 6,960,975 to Boris Volfson of Huntington, Indiana for a spaceship that bends space and time in order to defy gravity. Read through it with the knowledge that someone working for the United States government gave it the old thumbs up.
This year, there are approximately 500,000 patent applications waiting to be approved. The Patent Office predicts this number will increase to 600,000 by next year. The average examiner spends about 25 hours reviewing each application, though most companies must wait an average of three years to get an approval. With a dwindling staff and an ever-growing backlog of applications, it’s no wonder that pseudoscience like Volfson’s anti-gravity vehicle manage to sneak through, securing a disturbing level of credibility with their official recognition.
The Patent Office recognizes a growing problem and is taking steps to improve the process. Granted, they are more concerned with the issue of vaguely worded and derivative (read: lawsuit-worthy) patents getting through than they are with the approval of inventions that just don’t work. The only two stated requirements to get a patent as of right now are novelty and non-obviousness — scientific validity takes a back seat but presumably could be used as a reason for rejection.
That’s the way it has to be with the present system. A patent, in reality, is a legal tool to protect an original idea, and not an official government endorsement of a product. Sadly, the latter is exactly how the general public sees it, which is why I believe that it would behoove us all to take a dual approach by first educating the public on the limits of what a patent does and then reforming the approval process so that we reject the most absurd and unproven pseudoscience.
One way this might be feasible is through the Peer to Patent Project, a system that would allow a peer review process on applications in order to take a huge load off overworked and possibly undereducated (on the specific issues of each patent) Patent Office. IBM has stepped up to be first in line with its own patents, which bodes well for a larger scale institution. Not only would this process help stop redundant and obvious patent applications at their infancy, but it could be a way to weed out the pseudoscience before it clogs up the system and gains legitimacy.
I’m interested to see where this goes, and if eventually we’d be able to fight to rescind the patents of thousands of frauds who are using the designation to shill their products, from Q-Rays to cold fusion to free energy.
For further reading, check out this article from InformationWeek in February 2006, The U.S. Patent System in Crisis by Eric Chabrow.