Can you patent financial innovations?

By Felix Salmon
November 19, 2010
Stephen Gandel says that Loan Value Group's Responsible Homeowner Reward program is one of "the 50 best inventions of 2010":

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Time’s Stephen Gandel says that Loan Value Group’s Responsible Homeowner Reward program is one of “the 50 best inventions of 2010″:

Under LVG’s patented Responsible Homeowner Reward (RHR) program, banks promise to pay borrowers who continue to pay on time a lump sum — typically 10% of their original loan amount — when they sell or refinance their home. Miss more than one payment and the reward disappears. It’s still early (fewer than 5,000 people have been enrolled), but LVG says fewer than 10% of the borrowers in RHR have ended up defaulting, compared with a redefault rate of more than 20% for other loan-modification programs.

I like the program too, and am hopeful it will have lots of success. But what’s with that “patented”?

It turns out that RHR is technically an invention of 2009, not 2010, if you look at its patent application. Loan Value Group hasn’t actually been awarded the patent yet—Gandel was a little bit ahead of himself there—but LVG’s Frank Pallotta told me that applying for a patent on the idea “was the first thing we did” after setting up the company, and that the patent application preceded substantially all of the time and effort that LVG put in to building RHR.

Pallotta is an expert in mortgages, not in intellectual property, but he did say that he hadn’t personally ever come across a finance company applying for a patent on its idea before.

What’s more, it’s generally accepted that financial innovations can’t be patented: it’s an argument that Sebastian Mallaby regularly rolls out, for example, to defend and explain the secrecy of hedge funds. If you can’t apply for a patent, then the only way to stop people copying you is to operate in utmost secrecy.

But I’m not a fan of this development. For one thing, it’s unnecessary. The barriers to entry in this business are high: Pallotta says LVG has spent millions of dollars over the past few years building and marketing the program, as well as running it by a lot banks, servicers, investors, and regulators. And what’s more, LVG would probably benefit, at the margin, if and when its idea was ratified by the entrance into the market of other people doing pretty much the same thing.

More generally, I don’t want to see a world where people wanting to do positive things in the housing market are stymied by worries over patent suits. There is a worry that sleazy operators will put themselves forward as doing homeowners a favor when in fact they’re doing no such thing, but patent law is not the best way to stop such people. LVG had a good idea in 2009. But that doesn’t mean it should be able to patent the idea, and implicitly threaten anybody else thinking about entering the space with an expensive lawsuit.

Update: Mike Masnick points out 1998′s State Street decision, which was the point at which financial innovations started being patented.

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