Improving transparency by ending anonymous patents

About a year ago my wife and I bought a house. Amidst all of the paperwork, loan disclosures and the like, one thing we received was a title report, confirming that the seller owned the property. And, once we closed escrow, the deed transferring ownership to me and my wife was recorded in the property register. Title information is important and useful – in my case, the house we wanted wasn’t listed for sale, but our realtor was able to contact the owner and see if they were interested in selling.

Unfortunately, you can’t do the same thing if you want to acquire or license a patent. Recording ownership in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s assignment database is at present voluntary, with the result that records of patent ownership are often inaccurate and incomplete. Some patent owners take advantage of this obscurity to try to hide what they own for tactical advantage in licensing negotiations or to avoid complying with patent licensing commitments.

Policymakers increasingly recognize that knowing who owns what patents is critical to a well-functioning patent system. Today, in a significant step forward, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) introduced the “End Anonymous Patents Act,” which would require disclosure of the real party in interest of a patent upon issuance or, in cases where patents are transferred, within a short time after acquisition. We think legislation to require transparency around patent ownership will help improve the operation of the patent system, facilitate licensing and thus reduce litigation, and for that reason are heartened by the introduction of this bill and Chairman Patrick Leahy’s statement last month that he plans to work “on legislation that will ensure the real party in interest of a patent is disclosed.”

By promoting innovation, the patent system provides significant societal and economic benefits. Even so, there are steps we can take to make it work even better. Improving transparency of patent ownership – something we have done with patents we own via our Patent Tracker – is one key step along the path.

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