Patents are not Top Secret

Once you know something about a subject, you can’t help noticing how the popular media gets basic facts wrong.  Police officers have a hard time keeping a straight face when watching police dramas on TV and real computer programmers laugh when hackers take 30 seconds to break into a system on the big screen.  I recently had the same experience, watching a new TV commercial from Mitsubishi.

Naturally, Mitsubishi highlights their vehicle’s technical innovations, and I smiled when they mentioned their patent on an all-wheel traction control system.  But I laughed when the commercial showed two armed guards outside a door marked “Top Secret” and said “this is where we keep it”.  Mitsubishi’s engineers certainly know better, but apparently the ad agency doesn’t understand that a filing a patent is equivalent to renting a billboard in Times Square and buying a full-page color ad in the Wall Street Journal.

The whole point of the patent system is to encourage inventors to willingly share their ideas with the world, and not lock them away in secret rooms.  When a patent is filed the idea is available to everyone and all of society benefits from the sharing of new ideas.  The challenge, then, is how to reward innovators and protect them from having their ideas copied without any compensation.  The patent system accomplishes this by granting the owner a temporary monopoly to either “practice” the invention himself, or license others who wish to use it.  During this entire period, the patent itself is a matter of public record, as far from Top Secret as you can get.

Mitsubishi’s armed guards were a nice theatrical touch, but they’re superfluous. Guards don’t keep the patents secret and they don’t protect them from infringement, either. The judicial system of the country which granted the patent is available to defend the patent owner’s rights, whether through import injunctions or damage awards. The patent owner may need to hire a lawyer, but not a gunslinger.

My point isn’t to make fun of Mitsubishi or their ad agency, but rather to state that if a fundamental mistake such as this makes it all the way onto the TV screen, it shows there’s a great deal of popular misunderstanding about what a patent really is – or a willingness to promote a mistaken notion.  But as calls for “patent reform” grow ever louder, all of us in the intellectual property field must do a better job of explaining how patents really work.