As the number of patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office grows upwards toward 300,000 annually, Laura Sheridan, patent counsel at Google, declares the system broken. Speaking at the November 20th IPNY, the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy’s lecture series, she said, “In the last 15 years, there’s been an increase in low-quality patents issuing from the office, and this is particularly true in the software space."

Laura Sheridan

The problem, Sheridan says, is that presumption of issuance places the burden on the patent office to prove that a patent should not be issued. Applicants have incentive to be vague and try to stretch their property rights, compounding the problem. The office—already overwhelmed by 700,000 applications annually—has limited time to do the rigorous research needed for the approval process.

Sheridan proposed putting the burden on the applicant to clearly define the terms of a claim. She also called for making prior art more widely available—once companies do that, in fact, Google’s Prior Art Finder could crawl the information. Crowdsourcing could also help the office get through their workload, though going about that is a challenge in and of itself.

She emphasized that improving the patent system has one purpose—allowing room for innovation. “It’s all about knowing what’s been invented and what the scope of the patent rights are, so that we know where we can innovate without fear of infringing on someone else’s rights.”

Sheridan went on to discuss a host of other issues, including patent trolls, design patents, and net neutrality, with three of Engelberg Center’s faculty directors, Professors Christopher Sprigman, Jeanne Fromer, and Barton Beebe.

The IPNY lecture series, launched last April, pairs short talks on intellectual property topics with informal networking opportunities that let attendees meet members of the New York City communities that intersect with the world of IP. These include tech, fashion, advertising, publishing, theater, cuisine, journalism, and so on. “New York City’s centrality in the world of creativity is in the process of being renewed with the rapid growth of the city’s tech industry. With this series, Engelberg will serve as a center for this community, both for substantive discussion and for the networking,” said Sprigman. “Our students will also get the benefit of knowing leaders in New York’s creative industries.”

Posted November 25, 2014

Watch Sheridan discuss patent quality, patent litigation, and preemption of innovation (1 hr, 7 min):