Opinions and Editorials

Aug. 13, 2018

The Hill: Closing diversity gaps in patenting is essential to innovation economy

This post originally appeared in The Hill on August 13, 2018.

In 1871, Margaret Knight earned a patent for inventing a brown paper bag with a flat bottom, the same model that is used in most grocery stores to this day. More than a century later, African American inventor Lonnie Johnson received a patent for his Super Soaker water gun, a toy that has generated more than $1 billion in sales and has been among the top 20 best selling toys in the world every year since 1991.

The commercial success these inventors enjoyed was based on a strong and open patent system. Except for individuals held in slavery, the U.S. patent system has always welcomed all inventors by awarding patents regardless of race, gender, or economic status. It is an essential engine of innovation. Economic activity from patents in the United States is estimated at more than $8 trillion and intellectual property industries directly and indirectly support 30 percent of all U.S. employment.

Despite the ostensible equal opportunity afforded to patent applicants, women, people of color, and lower income individuals are patenting inventions at significantly lower rates than their male, white, and wealthier counterparts. This inequity comes not from discrimination in the granting of patents, but rather from a dearth of applications from these underrepresented groups. The net effect artificially constrains our innovation economy, and must change. According to the Institute for Women Policy Research, fewer than 20 percent of all U.S. patents list at least one woman as an inventor. While women see their patent applications granted at only slightly lower rates than men, they filed only a third as many applications between 2000 and 2016.

There is an even starker gap in the patenting rates, both applications and awards, of African Americans and Hispanics. From 1970 to 2006, African American inventors were awarded just six patents per million people, compared to over 235 patents per million for all U.S. inventors. Today, African Americans and Hispanics apply for patents at only half the rate of whites, and African American and Hispanic college graduates similarly hold just half as many patents as white college graduates.