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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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May 1997


Patently Curious Lack of Coverage
Guest Editorial, by Daniel J. Murphy

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 the measure.

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 category."

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 been granted.

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 for infringement.

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?

Digital's high-profile 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 Washington bureau.


Rich Noyes


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