I was browsing around Amazon.com recently and I ran across an interesting book titled “Democratizing Innovation” by Eric Von Hippel. As the book description highlights Von Hippel asserts:
“Users, aided by improvements in computer and communications technology, increasingly can develop their own new products and services. …product and service development is concentrated among “lead users,” who are ahead on marketplace trends and whose innovations are often commercially attractive.”
I agree that this is not only a valid observation but is something that should be encouraged. As the book description also highlights Von Hippel view of “user-centered innovation” means that:
“…manufacturers should redesign their innovation processes and that they should systematically seek out innovations developed by users.”
Again, no disagreement from me.
But I wonder then; does user-centered innovation also requires some degree of user-centered IP management?
That means that the lead user innovators Von Hippel describes should be expected to combine their innovation work with a cursory prior art examination. To start, that sets an expectation that the property rights of other innovators need to be respected. Just as important, it forces lead user innovators to understand the difference between actual innovation and idiosyncratic rejigs of existing solutions.
[note – any one in an IT department that has spent months needlessly customizing a business application when a standardized process would have sufficed knows why this is important].
But here’s the problem. In addition to checking through business journals and textbooks, a prior art search should consider existing patents. And while tools like Google Patent Search and Patent Storm have made patent identification available to the masses, the gobbledygook that passes for English in a patent claim makes patent examination all but impossible to those outside the high priesthood of patent attorneys.
Let me give you an example. Here is the text for a single point used in describing Microsoft’s patent for grouping and manipulating windows. The idea seems simple enough – but check this out:
A computer-implemented method for operating upon windows as an aggregate, the computer system having a display device and a window system for displaying displayable windows on the display device, each of a plurality of the displayable windows associated with a program for implementing what is displayed in the window and having associated viewing states including an open state and a closed state, and having a current state, wherein the current state represents a viewing state, wherein each viewing state provides information for setting the appearance of the associated window and for setting an execution state of the associated program, the method comprising the steps of:
grouping a plurality of windows from amongst the plurality of displayable windows into a project group, the project group having associated information regarding which windows belong to the project group; upon receiving a request to close the project group, for each window belonging to the project group, saving the current state of the window and setting the current state of the window to the closed state, thereby setting the execution state of the associated program to a no longer executing state; and upon receiving a request to open the project group, for each window belonging to the project group, setting the current state of the window to the saved state.
Get that? Me neither. And this particular patent has 46 more mind-numbingly obtuse points to make. Nor is this patent unique in its complex language.
Let’s remember that patents are supposed to be “non-obvious” to someone skilled in the arts. As someone who’s been in the IT industry for 23 years I think I qualify as someone skilled in the arts. So why am I confronted with either a migraine headache or a whole pile of expensive six minute billing increments in order to comprehend an idea being patented?
True, patents do have an abstract. Unfortunately these go the other direction – they’re too superficial to be useful. That yawning gap between the superficial patent abstract and the dense, legal claim description leads to two outcomes. Either the legal profession has to be interjected into the innovation process way too early or patent examination is ignored. Option one is too costly and option two is too risky.
Now, I understand that patents need to framed in a way which is suitable for a legal environment. So I’m not suggesting that this complex wording should be eliminated.
What I am saying is that patents need to be framed in a way which is suitable for an innovation environment. And, as Von Hippel points out, that is increasingly happening in a wide-open, highly democratized fashion. What that means is that a simple “plain English” claim descriptions should be part of a patent filing.