Few would think rewriting
patent law capable of generating any interest at all. Public
interest? Forget it.
This spring, though, the
issue has brought allegations of foreign influence in U.S.
government policy. Asian influence, no less. Multinational
conglomerates battling hometown innovators. Conservative Republicans
teaming with labor Democrats as odd political bedfellows. And
moderates have split down both sides of the issue.
All those ingredients smell
like the trappings of a substantial news story. And they are. Except
that congressional debate has gone wanting for major television news
coverage. Through May 9, not one of the major broadcast networks,
nor CNN, nor even PBS's NewsHour had devoted air time to the
subject. TV certainly had the time to do the story. Debate on the
House floor began Thursday, April 17, but then was suspended until
the following Wednesday due to the brief Pass- over break.
Print coverage has been
sparse, too. Investor's Business Daily published stories last summer
and, with the Washington Post, after the House passed the amended
bill. The San Jose Mercury News covered the topic as the House was
considering it. The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times each did
stories following the Senate Judiciary Committee's May 7 hearings on
No doubt the scant coverage
stems at least in part from the perception that patent law is
opaque. Although complexity does characterize the legislation, the
story behind it is pretty simple to present.
Run stills and footage of
Edison, the Wright brothers, and Edwin Land. Explain to viewers that
independent inventors feel threatened that the fruits of their labor
would be stolen by powerful corporate interests stationed here and
abroad. Insert a little historical perspective into the mix,
mentioning that the Founding Fathers thought intellectual property
rights important enough to write into the Constitution.
Point out to viewers that
corporations see global availability of ideas as a way for
innovators to openly stake out areas of discovery while allowing
competitors dedicated to the same endeavors to cease efforts that
would ultimately prove duplicative. Perhaps mention that advocates
see the bill as a way to harmonize the U.S. patent system with the
rest of the world, while opponents wonder why the rest of the world
doesn't harmonize their respective patent systems to ours.
Even somewhat incendiary,
though factual, information could be added to a report. First,
there's the allegation conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly puts
forward that the bill sells out American interests to foreign ones.
And, indeed, the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown did sign deals
with the Japanese government calling for changes in U.S. patent
law.Second, U.S. Patent and Trademark Commissioner Bruce Lehman
incited passions with his view, quoted first in the San Jose Mercury
News, that opponents of the bill were "in the Timothy McVeigh
A more sophisticated report
also could touch on how the debate presents lawmakers with a choice
of sorts between two worthy economic policy goals. On one hand,
there are hallowed intellectual property rights that inventors think
would be jeopardized by the bill's call for detailed publication of
patent applications, regardless of whether a patent actually has
On the other hand,
sustained economic growth becomes that much harder to maintain with
duplicative research and development efforts occurring around the
world. Corporate interests also fear patent filers gaming the
current system's secrecy in order to later sue their deep pockets
Behind all these issues
lies the economic question of what effect patents and innovations
have on the marketplace. Sometimes they upset it greatly, but
innovation also creates enormous new avenues for building wealth.
Remember Alexander Graham
Bell? His telephone patent was not enforced in the courts until the
U.S. Supreme Court did so by a one-vote margin. According to the
National Patent Association, one hundred years after the Supreme
Court's ruling AT&T has drawn in $6 trillion in revenues, of which
half went to paying salaries. After all, who's telegraphing their
spouse to pick up bread and milk on the way home?
patent infringement lawsuit against Intel presents TV news
organizations another opportunity to present this controversy to the
American public. With the matter still on the Senate agenda, there's
no time like the present.
Daniel J. Murphy is a
national issues reporter with Investor's Business Daily's