What are the 27 Most Powerful Words in the U.S. Constitution for Innovators?

By John Raidt
October 22, 2013
General Foundation

This past September marked 226 years since the framers of the United States Constitution adopted a sentence that changed the course of economic history.  The patent and copyright clause they added empowered Congress “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.”  

The founders could scarcely have imagined the power that these 27 words would have in helping create the most dynamic, innovative, and prosperous national economy known to man.  Since its inception the patent law has incented invention by providing patent recipients with the exclusive right to make, use, and sell an invention for a limited period of time (usually 20 years) in exchange for public disclosure of the innovation or discovery. President Abraham Lincoln noted that the system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” 

The patent system helped power the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and the ITC revolution in the 20th century.  The best is yet to come in the 21st century; that is, if we are wise.  We could achieve transformational advancements in genetics, robotics, and other life-altering fields—some we can scarcely dream of today. To maximize the vast potential of technological innovation to solve global problems and meet human needs, however, it’s clear that our priority must be for the quality and scope of U.S. patent laws, policies, and procedures (even the patents themselves) to continue to be a positive force for innovation. 

To achieve that objective and catalyze a rapid pace of invention that will yield the job creation, productivity, global competitiveness, and the rising quality of life of our aspirations, the nation’s patent policy must strike a set of delicate balances.  

Balance competition and collaboration.  The competitive fire to be first and best drives excellence in innovation, as it does human performance in every other area of endeavor. What’s clear, though, is that innovation today is achieved at the intersections and margins of multiple disciplines, a reality requiring that we collaborate as well as compete. 

We continue to witness the power of crowdsourcing across many domains of society. The innovation process is no exception.  We need as many great minds as possible trained on scientific breakthrough and finding the most promising solutions to our greatest challenges.  Indeed, patents have long existed to foster this flow of information.  It’s the symbiosis of collaboration and competition that will maximize our innovative powers. 

The preeminent goal is ensuring a patent system that stokes the fires of genius with interest, and encouraging the ability of creators and improvers to build upon existing ideas, add new twists, and rework innovations to still greater advantage.   

Balance IPR protection with basic research. We must ensure proper balance between protecting IP rights while allowing for basic research in patent-heavy areas such as the biosciences, particularly genetics.  As the Association of Medical Colleges observes, “Apatent policy that is hostile to research tools and their developerswill certainly not encourage the development of products thatpromise to accelerate research processes and make them moreefficient.Conversely, if openness renders exclusivity meaningless the incentive to make the substantial investments required to bring goods, services, and solutions to market will be severely diminished.  

Patents are not possible without the basic and applied research, development, and testing that are prerequisite to the market deployment of solutions.  Without ample basic research—financed largely by the public sector—the pipeline of invention will slow.  Without applied research—funded largely by the private sector—solutions that began in the basic stage will never get to market.  This dynamic implies a continuum of innovation in which the private and public sector are interdependent partners. 

In these resource constrained times when governments, companies, and universities are watching their respective bottom lines, we must continue to seek the essential balances between ample public and private funding, and between basic and applied research if we are to to maintain the vigor and productivity of our innovation ecosystem.  Without this balance even the finest patent system in the world will yield little of use.