I was invited to speak about patents at the Biotechnology Industry Organization Convention in Philadelphia. I couldn’t go. Instead they showed questions 1 and 7 from my MDA video interview here, and the following remarks were read by ten colleagues/clients/friends. Very touching.
I wish I could be there at BIO with you in person. It’s always an honor to speak there. Unfortunately illness is stealing my abilities one by one. Anyway I’m glad to have this opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings about innovation, thanks to the power of written text.
I have a confession to make. I love my job. I’ve been a patent attorney for over 30 years and for more than half that time, I’ve been a partner at Venable in DC. It’s a wonderful firm of excellent lawyers focused on great client service performed with good cheer and collegiality. My firm has a strong community spirit and everyone has a sense of humor or at least puts up with it. We also have the best bocce players in the profession and we challenge any of you to a match on our rooftop bocce court.
My job, simply stated, is to help people put their ideas to work, to heal, feed, and fuel the world and make life more enjoyable and productive. Bringing new ideas forward is difficult and uncertain but it is an honest living.
I’ve done all kinds of patent work for all kinds of clients, collaborating with many colleagues, and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
• I’ve prosecuted patents on recombinant DNA, synthetic genomes, vaccines, pharmaceutical compounds, immunoassays, gene therapy, insect-based protein production, medical devices, and grain crops. The Inventors come from all over the world and whether they are humble or arrogant, they share a passion to use their wits to improve the world. Success with a new biotechnology is arduous, improbable, and expensive, and globalization complicates things even further. Individuals and organizations would not dare to try to bring their inventions forward without patents. I’ve seen investors back out of promising technology because of failed efforts at patent protection.
Licensing and transactions taught me how valuable patents can be. Although most inventions go nowhere, the few that get commercialized can make their owners very wealthy. I’ve always felt that these biotech park people deserve success more than wall street.
• In litigation I learned that accused infringers are just as passionate about their right to use the patented technology as patent owners are about excluding them. Patents have limited scope and duration and it should be no wonder that these disputes are fought so fiercely, in the US and around the world.
My appellate work, including amicus briefs for BIO, confirmed the subtlety of patent law and the far reaching effects of changing doctrine. In my view, the past few years have brought an unfortunate confusion to patent law, particularly the supreme Court’s holdings on patentable subject matter.
Internationally, I’ve represented research institutions all over the world and have been heavily involved with biodiversity. People everywhere want to put their ideas to work but most lack the expertise. So i started PIIPA, public interest intellectual property advisors, to leverage the volunteer pro bono skills of IP attorneys to help developing country clients. We have a network of thousands of volunteers. Unfortunately most donors have trouble seeing the connection between IP and economic development.
I’ve used my experience and insights to create a course in business and law school on IP strategy. Surprisingly, students who begin as IP illiterates can provide competent analysis after one semester. The key is to focus on each aspect of IP, in each sector, as part of a dynamic balance between exclusivity and open access. An example is the transition from branded drugs to generics when patents expire.
My book and other writings explore these topics in depth.
All this has taught me the simple lesson that patents are not simple. Yes, the patent system is complex and changing. We should not accept efforts to oversimplify it. I may even be guilty of simplification in these brief remarks. My hope, anyway, is to convince you to help reduce IP illiteracy by teaching what you know and challenging people who oversimplify.
A final note. I have had ALS for about three years. It’s no picnic to deal with an incurable progressive terminal disease. You can bet I’m eager to accelerate the search for a cure and from what I’ve seen we are entering a golden age of research into curing neurological disorders. Weakening the patent system won’t help me or future victims of this disease. Every one who cares about cures should be prepared for a constant struggle, decades and even centuries long, to keep patents working to drive innovation.
As I said, I love my job, and sharing these thoughts is an important part of my responsibilities. Thank you for your attention.