U.S. Chamber of Commerce Patent Policy Conference
Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Andrei Iancu
“Role of U.S. Patent Policy in Domestic Innovation and Potential Impacts on Investment.”
April 11, 2018
As prepared for delivery
Thank you Neil (Bradley) for that generous introduction. Thank you also to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its Global Innovation Policy Center for hosting this impressive gathering and inviting me to speak here today.
Dr. Eli Harari, an electrical engineer, always tinkered and invented things. He tells, for example, that he invented a new type of fishing rod, although he never fished.
“Imagine how much more successful you’d be,” his wife said, “if you’d invent in a field you knew something about.”
And so he did. Dr. Harari is credited with inventing the Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory, also known as EEPROM, or “E-squared PROM.” This was in the 1970s, when Harari was working at a major corporation, where he was a star. But a few years later, he wanted to be on his own, to invent, to perfect, to commercialize. In his late 30s, he was also married and had a child. So in the prime of his career, with a family at home, Harari left his comfortable life with major corporations.
Seeding it in part with his own money, Harari started a company of his own. And he did not even draw a salary the first several months. He risked everything: his career, his finances, and his family. That first company actually did not work out well, but a few years later, Harari risked it all again and co-founded a new company, which he ultimately called SanDisk.
At SanDisk, Harari built upon his EEPROM technology, added critically important new inventions, and perfected flash memory data storage. And he obtained patents, including on how to turn memory chips into reliable systems. Harari’s flash technology came to be used almost universally in devices like digital cameras and cell phones. In 2016, Western Digital acquired SanDisk for $19 billion.
But think about it: without patents, how could someone like Dr. Harari risk everything, put aside his secure career at an established company, and strike it on his own?
As Dr. Harari told me, “The only asset you have is your idea. If you have no way to protect your idea, you are at the mercy of the next bad guy. The U.S. patent system is genius, really the bedrock foundation of capitalism.” Harari’s sentiment was echoed by President Ronald Reagan, who said in 1982: “Throughout our nation’s history, the patent system has played a critically important role in stimulating technological advances.”
How true that is.
Yet today, our patent system is at a crossroads. For more than just a few years, our system has been pushed and pulled, poked and prodded. The cumulative result is a system in which the patent grant is less reliable today than it should be. This onslaught has come from all directions. There has been major reform legislation, and proposed legislation. There have been massive changes brought about by major court cases. And the USPTO itself has taken a variety of actions in an effort to implement these changes. Plus, importantly, the rhetoric surrounding the patent system has focused relentlessly on certain faults in, or abuses of, the system—instead of the incredible benefits the system brings to our nation. We see the result of this years-long onslaught in your own study, the U.S. Chamber’s 6th Annual International IP Index.
I don’t need to tell this audience that the American patent system, which in prior years was deservedly ranked as the number one system in the world, in 2017 fell to number 10. And this year it fell further, tied for number 12. But make no mistake: we are still an elite system, a mere ¼ point away from the systems ranked 2-11. And the United States remains the leader for overall IP rights.
Still, we are at an inflection point with respect to the patent system. As a nation, we cannot continue down the same path if we want to maintain our global economic leadership. And we will not continue down the same path. This administration has a mission to create sustained economic growth, and innovation and IP protection are key goals in support of that mission.