Is the U.S. Patent System Out of Date?

May 18, 1990

Report Outline
Special Focus


Two hundred years after its birth, the U.S. patent system stands as one of the most durable of federal programs. For most of its years it also has been one of the least controversial. But now there are charges that the Patent and Trademark Office—the Commerce Department agency charged with administering the patent code—is incapable of keeping up with changes brought on by emerging fields of high technology.

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The U.S. patent system, first created when President George Washington signed it into law on April 10, 1790, came with a clear purpose and a high pedigree—the Constitution itself. Article 1, Section 8, states that “Congress shall have power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

The authors of the Constitution gave such importance to patents (and to copyrights, which protect writings) because they saw them as crucial to the economic development of the country. At bottom, patents are social contracts between society and inventors. In the interest of spurring innovation by providing incentives, society agrees to protect an inventor's control over an invention. In return, the inventor must disclose the details of his invention, and the information is made available to the public, thus potentially spurring further innovations. The 1790 Act provided for 14 years of protection, a period that was subsequently increased to 17 years.

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