Election 2008: Which Candidate is Best for “Joe the Inventor”?

Wealth of Ideas Newsletter, November 2008

(11/3/08) With only one day left until the 2008 US Presidential election, the candidates are largely focusing on the “big issues” on the minds of most Americans—namely, the economy, taxes and healthcare. But where do John McCain and Barack Obama stand on vital intellectual property (IP) issues that affect individual inventors, small companies and copyright holders?

Patent reform

Both candidates call for a more streamlined, more transparent process for issuing higher-quality patents to make innovation easier. They both also recognize that there is a need for an affordable alternative to pricey patent litigation when a dispute arises.

But their proposals take very different paths to solving the sticky problems facing IP in America today.

Obama: Allow patent review by citizens

Barack Obama proposes some unusual reforms on his website, such as “opening up the patent process to citizen review.” Obama believes that peer review of patents would improve patent quality and reduce the “uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation.”

Obama also advocates authorizing the USPTO to perform “low-cost, timely administrative proceedings to determine patent validity”—though one might wonder how the words “USPTO,” “low-cost” and “timely” can realistically appear in the same sentence.

Although his briefly-sketched ideas offer an intriguing starting point, Obama’s technology platform—which includes only a very brief summary of his ideas on intellectual property—speaks much more at length about other issues, such as providing broadband access for all Americans.

McCain: Fix Patent Office problems at the source

While Obama proposes a vague “peer review” process for patent applications, John McCain would provide concrete solutions to the fundamental problems that are causing the Patent Office to turn out poor-quality patents in the first place. McCain’s technology platform proposes hiring and training more patent examiners to relieve the USPTO of an increased workload that “threatens to undermine the quality of our patent examinations.”

McCain also vows to develop an affordable alternative to costly patent litigation, but is not specific about how he would “provide alternative approaches to resolving patent challenges.”

IP infringement in other countries

Obama pledges “to ensure intellectual property is protected in foreign markets, and promote greater cooperation on international standards that allow our technologies to compete everywhere,” while McCain “will seek international agreements and enforcement efforts that ensure fair rewards to intellectual property.”

Of course, the success of both candidates’ plans is contingent on the willingness of other governments to work with ours for the protection of American patents and copyrights.

So which candidate will be the best for “Joe the Inventor”?

Both campaigns suggest that greater transparency is needed in a complex and expensive patent system. The Annenberg Research Network on International Communication issued a report on the 2008 campaign, comparing the candidates’ platforms on technology issues, and concluded that neither candidate’s platform—as presented on their websites—really goes far enough or is specific enough about how to solve the problems in American IP today.

The next President of the United States will have plenty of time to rectify that problem when the post-election dust settles—and we hope that the solution will be to the benefit of all innovators, including small inventors. But if (as pundits and pollsters overwhelmingly predict) Obama wins and history is a reliable teacher, a Democratic administration plus a Democrat-controlled, possibly filibuster-proof Congress are likely to produce a patent reform similar to the ill-conceived Patent Reform Act of 2007 (which was spearheaded by Democrats).

And that, unquestionably, would be to the detriment of Joe the Inventor.