Patent applications covering fundamental tech have been pending before the US PTO for 43 years

According to the Chicago Tribune, inventor Glibert Hyatt is awaiting approval for a patent filed 43 years ago for "electronic signal control of machinery". It took 20 years for Hyatt to be awarded a patent covering "single chip integrated circuit computer architecture," effectively granting to Hyatt a royalty claim to most microprocessors in use (making Hyatt an already wealthy man).  He's also waiting for the grant of a patent application on liquid crystal displays. That application has been pending for 35 years.

Technology historian Ross Bassett is quoted in the Tribune article above as follows (emphasis added):

I respect Gilbert Hyatt's work — the process of engineering is difficult. But innovations are more than ideas. The broader context matters. If Gilbert Hyatt had never existed, I believe the microprocessor would have developed in the same way that it did.

Of course it would have.

The computer chip industry grew and thrived while Hyatt's IC patent application stewed before the PTO. So what does this episode reveal about the policy justifications for the patent system?

In The Myth of the Sole Inventor, Mark Lemley posits that the "canonical story of the lone genius inventor", or lone team of inventors, is "largely a myth. Surveys of hundreds of significant new technologies show that almost all of them are invented simultaneously or nearly simultaneously by two or more teams working independently of each other", and that "[i]nvention appears in significant part to be a social, not an individual, phenomenon." Lemley's historical research calls into question the entire theoretical underpinnings underlying modern patent law:

The result is a real problem for classic theories of patent law. If we are supposed to be encouraging only inventions that others in the field couldn‘t have made, we should be paying a lot more attention than we currently do to simultaneous invention. We should be issuing very few patents—surely not the 200,000 per year we do today. And we should be denying patents on the vast majority of the most important inventions, since most seem to involve near-simultaneous invention. Put simply, our dominant theory of patent law doesn‘t seem to explain the way we actually implement that law.

I admire Mr. Hyatt's technical genius, but how ultimately will society benefit from granting these patents that Mr. Hyatt's been waiting for? The applications themselves have been shrouded in secrecy, as they were filed under a previous version of the law that mandates their confidentiality until granted. As a consequence, no one learned anything from these patent applications. In the meantime, the electronics industry has flourished, and has not only implemented but gone way beyond the technology described in these 43-year old documents. It seems incongruous, to say the least, to anoint Mr. Hyatt as the sole beneficiary of a new royalty tax that ultimately all of us end up paying.

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