Posted by J Matthew Buchanan at April 20, 2005 10:51 AM
Every year, several lists are published that purport to rank various types of organizations on some type of innovation scale. The lists provide great headline material (“Top ten universities announced;” “Most innovative companies named,” etc.), but not much else. It seems there’s a list for every type of entity (see, for example, these lists for businesses, universities, states, law firms) and the media, including the popular media, gobbles them up, year, after year, after year.
Unfortunately, these lists boil down to nothing more than a numbers game. Here’s the basic formula for all numbers-based lists:
1. Count the number of patents granted to an organization in a given year
2. Rank the organizations in a particular group (universities, companies, law firms, etc) based on the numbers.
Many people blindly believe that, in the patent world, more is better. This includes many business people (ever look at an annual report of a publicly-traded innovation-based company? Some business folks are very proud of their “patent numbers”). Unfortunately, the numbers game is contributing to the quality problem. Many believe that organizations playing the numbers game are primarily responsible for the perceived drop in patent quality of late.
An interesting aside: How’s this for irony…in a recent call for reform of the US system, IBM Vice President of Technology and Strategy Irving Wladawsky-Berger, whose company sits atop the USPTO patent rankings year after year, stated flatly that “any idiot can get a patent for something that should never be granted a patent.”
Numbers-based rankings do nothing but feed the numbers game monster (well, ok, there is the “catchy headline” thing…).
Here’s a seemingly simple rethink: If patents are to be used as a measure of innovation, shouldn’t patent quality be the primary focus?
I’ve been trying to rethink this one for awhile. Turns out, its not so simple. How do you rate patent quality? Does it require a detailed analysis of each and every claim from each and every patent? To be accurate, does it require perfect knowledge of the prior art? Does it require a full legal analysis of validity and scope?
My rethinking led me to conclude that the determination of a quality score is a difficult task. No matter how its determined, though, a quality score should be a reflection of the scope of a claim or claims relative to the invention and the applicable prior art. Considering this, its easy to see why the simple two-step formula of the numbers game is so popular. Its easy! Determining quality is hard (and likely very expensive)!
I don’t know what the solution is. But, I do believe that we, as patent professionals, need to downplay the importance of the numbers game and stress the importance of quality over quantity. So, the next time you read one of those catchy headlines, take it with a single grain of salt.
Another aside: I am aware of at least one system that purports to use a quality-based analysis: the Intellectual Property Quotient (IPQ) system of PatentRatings LLC. I have no experience with the IPQ system and would love to hear from anyone who does.