Saturday, February 18, 2023

What Does A Patent Say?

There is a narrative about accelerating technological change, which appears to be supported by an increasing volume of patent activity. I have expressed my doubts about this metric in previous posts.

In their latest book, Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke also call out the unreliability of this metric.

The number of patents is also an imperfect measure of innovation. ... no correlation between the number of patents in a technological field and the annual performance improvement of that field ... The number of patents does not reflect how disruptive the patented innovation is or whether it's toxic or beneficial. ... Furthermore, patent numbers do not account for the Tech Barons' distorting the innovation paths and monopolizing knowledge. Ezrachi and Stucke p 150

Although despite this caveat, they appear to take the metric seriously when evaluating cities on their support for innovation pp 208-211, p268 n30.

They also suggest a further twist.

It should be noted that not all patents have been transformed into products and services. Some of the technologies may have been developed but not necessarily implemented, Still, they offer a valuable indication as to the assets a company is trying to secure and the direction in which its technology is heading. p238 n1

This is supported by a newspaper article by Sahil Chinoy, which includes a quote from law professor Jason M Schultz.

A patent portfolio is a map of how a company thinks about where its technology is going.
Tech watchers have often interpreted patent applications in this way. In my post Guardian Angel (May 2008), I discussed a patent application that attracted a lot of attention at the time, both because of its content and because of some of the people involved. (Bill Gates obviously, who else?)

But with all respect to Professor Schultz, that's not actually the purpose of a patent. The primary purpose of a patent is not to enable the inventor to exploit something, it is to prevent anyone else freely exploiting it. 

(The purpose of the patent system may be to reward inventors and encourage invention, but that's an entirely different question.)

As reported by Dani Deahl and Sarah Perez, Amazon took out a patent to prevent people doing in Amazon shops exactly what Amazon had always encouraged them to do in everyone else's shops! See my post on Showrooming and Multi-sided Markets (December 2012, updated June 2017). 

And in some cases, a patent is just staking a precautionary claim to an invention that is not currently viable, to make sure nobody else can profit from it.

Obviously this kind of patent game is not the only method used by Tech Barons to suppress innovation that is inconvenient to them, and Ezrachi and Stucke document many others. Sometimes it just means taking over an inconvenient service and shutting it down, as eBay did with See my post Predictive Analytics for the Smart Consumer (April 2014).

Meanwhile, if the Tech Barons actually wanted to do something totally devious and evil, do you really think they would submit a patent application for the world to see?

Sahil Chinoy, What 7 Creepy Patents Reveal About Facebook (New York Times, 21 June 2018) subscribers only

Dani Deahl, Amazon granted a patent that prevents in-store shoppers from online price checking (The Verge, 15 June 2017)

Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke, How Big-Tech Barons Smash Innovation and how to strike back (New York: Harper, 2022)

Sarah Perez, Amazon, now a physical retailer too, is granted an anti-showrooming patent (TechCrunch, 16 June 2017) 

Related post: How soon might humans be replaced at work (November 2015)

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