From Volume 89, Number 4 (May 2016)
The patent system uses exclusion to stimulate innovation. But a mounting body of evidence calls into question the assumption that innovation based on excluding others is the only, or even primary, way that the patent system supports innovation today. Nearly 50 percent of manufacturers got the idea for their most important new product from an outside source that shared it with them, 45–59 percent of patentees acquire patents in order to access the technology of others, and over 2,100 companies, including five of the top ten holders of patents, have committed to sharing their patents with others. But because the essence of a patent is the right to exclude, policymakers have paid relatively less attention to ways in which patents can be used to include and to diffuse technology. This paper focuses on the ways that innovators are modifying the patent system’s exclusionary defaults, employing open source approaches, licenses, pledges, contracts, defensive publication and patenting, and related mechanisms to share innovation—including with their rivals. This Article advocates supporting and encouraging, rather than just tolerating these uses of the patent system, for several reasons. First, as innovation takes place in open and closed modes, the patent system can increase its relevance to all types of innovation. Second, weaknesses in voluntary diffusionary arrangements—for example, the lack of enforceability of patent pledges or open source commitments, the use of patents subject to licensing commitments to seek injunctions, and the use of once-defensive patents for patent assertion —suggest that the policy environment for innovation could be improved. Finally, providing ways for patent holders to take voluntary steps to curtail or limit their rights can offer a more flexible and predictable framework for rebalancing the patent system than measures like imposing limits on patentable subject matter or compulsory licensing.