Federal lawmakers are considering a measure that would drastically weaken the U.S. patent system. But rather than overhaul the system that has fostered more than 200 years of technological breakthroughs, lawmakers ought to devote their energies to strengthening U.S. patents against the threats posed by foreign counterfeiters.
The Patent Reform Act, which made it through the House late last year, is expected to be voted on in the Senate within the next few weeks. It's no coincidence that the only Maryland representative to vote against it - Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett - is also the only one who has invented and patented products.
The bill's passage would make it easier to file patent challenges, narrow the standards for what qualifies as copyright infringement and limit the economic damages for which an infringer can be held accountable. Many technology companies favor the legislation, which they see as achieving a more streamlined patent-granting process. But such an approach is shortsighted.
Patents protect any innovation or design that has commercial value. Examples include software, the latest movies and music, designer clothing, auto and electronic components and medicines.
Given the threats to intellectual property protection posed by foreign counterfeiters, the last thing America's innovators need is another assault on their livelihood, this time from their own government.
Global counterfeiting is big business. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that the value of international trade in counterfeit goods in 2005 was as much as $200 billion - money that went untaxed and, in many cases, supported criminal syndicates.
New and existing trade deals must include protections for intellectual property rights. Unfettered free trade with nations that can't enforce such measures should not be an option. But no one's pushing for anything of the sort in this recent round of patent negotiations.
Take a look at China, which is notorious for its reluctance to enforce intellectual property standards. The Congressional Research Service estimates that counterfeits constitute 15 percent to 20 percent of all products made in China. And yet the number of criminal cases related to intellectual property fell by 35 percent in China in 2006.
In addition to undermining the strength of America's patent system, such rampant, unchecked counterfeiting abroad stifles economic growth and technological progress at home.
The pharmaceutical industry is a case in point. The cost of researching and developing a single new drug is nearly $1 billion. A patent and its guarantee of exclusive sales for a finite period make that upfront cost financially worthwhile. Foreign drug counterfeiters leech off the high-priced discoveries of legitimate drug makers and destroy the financial incentives for new medical research.
If recent federal wrangling over patent reform is to be fruitful, legislators need to fight for protections against foreign scam artists hoping to make a quick buck off the hard work of American inventors. The way to do this is by strengthening the U.S. patent system, not weakening it.
Douglas E. Schoen was a founding partner of a political consulting firm. He is the author of the recently published book, "The Power of the Vote: Electing Presidents, Overthrowing Dictators, and Promoting Democracy Around the World." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.