Bringing sense to business-method patents

By Felix Salmon
July 5, 2011
today is one of those times.

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It’s rare that I consider Andrew Ross Sorkin too harsh on Wall Street, but today is one of those times.

Sorkin’s thesis, narrowly considered, is undeniable. Wall Street has clout in Congress; because of that clout, it can get bank-friendly provisions inserted into legislation. But the broader thrust of the column is I think misguided: that the legislation is a bad thing, and that it unfairly benefits banks to the detriment of civil society and the rule of law.

It’s worth reading the column in full to feel the force of Sorkin’s disapproval. He quotes five different people in the column, of whom four are fiercely opposed to the legislation. The fifth, Chuck Schumer, is quoted with the construction “has said” — a phrase dripping with condescension and disbelief. (Schumer’s opponents are given the much more straightforward “according to,” “said,” “said,” and “wrote”.) This might be the first and last Sorkin column to ever treat Maxine Waters with more respect than Chuck Schumer.

The provision in question makes it much harder for financial-services firms to enforce what’s known as “business method” patents. These are relatively new animals, and not particularly welcome ones, either. There’s no good reason why financial innovations should be patented, and there’s every reason why they shouldn’t be. Patents are a way of skewing the playing field and giving one player an artificial advantage over everybody else — the exact opposite of how financial markets are meant to work.

There are far too many patents in general, and enforcement of them often resembles a multi-billion-dollar lottery. But at least outside the financial sector there can be good reason for such things to exist: without them, much R&D expenditure would simply cease. But financial companies don’t have R&D budgets, and given the sorry track record of financial innovation that’s probably just as well. What’s more, the more successful financial innovations — mutual funds, say, or venture capital, or even coco bonds, should they turn out to actually work — are very much in the public domain, open for anybody and everybody to copy.

Sorkin’s attempts to defend the idea of financial business-method patents ring pretty hollow. Some companies’ patents might be “put into jeopardy”, he writes, while others will have to spend money on lawyers trying to defend them. Well, yes. That’s the whole point.

The banks “are attempting to write into law what they have been unable to achieve in litigation,” Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, wrote in a letter to colleagues…

Admittedly, it seems somewhat preposterous that simply processing scanned checks, as DataTreasury does, could be a patentable business method. But we have courts, which have upheld these patents, for a reason…

Experts like F. Scott Kieff, a professor at George Washington University Law School and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, worry that the law is too broad…

He is worried about the law’s impact not just on investors in the United States, but also about even broader implications. “When word gets out that intellectual property rights are not being taken seriously in the U.S., especially for any class of patents that can be a convenient political target of powerful, well-heeled interest groups like banks, our voracious international competitors will pounce,” he said.

Sorkin never explains why the law might be bad for “investors in the United States”. Given that investors are the foremost consumers of financial services, one imagines they will be very happy if they no longer have to pay rents to patent holders in order to use those services.

As for those “voracious international competitors”, I have absolutely no idea who they are, what they are going to be pouncing on, or even who they’re supposed to be competing with. This is pure rhetoric, unsupported with any actual analysis; Sorkin does wave his hand at an article published in “a Hoover Institution journal”, but without any kind of link it’s impossible to follow the thread any further.

And Sorkin seems to have forgotten that it’s Congress’s job to make laws, which courts then enforce. If the existing law has gone astray — as patent law clearly has — then Congress has the obligation to set it back on its right and proper path. Section 18 isn’t too broad, it’s too narrow.

But that’s not how Sorkin sees it:

Section 18 represents a much larger issue: It is perhaps the most blatant demonstration of the lobbying power of Wall Street and, just as important, the willingness of Congress to support the interests of the banks, even in the face of clear evidence that the law has no purpose other than to benefit the financial services industry.

Well, yes, the law will benefit the financial services industry. No one is arguing that point. And it will hurt rentiers with patents. The important question is whether it’s a good idea from a public-policy perspective. Sorkin ducks that question entirely. But the fact is that if we want a level playing field in financial services, getting rid of business-method patents is an extremely good idea.

Update: Kevin Drum agrees that business-method patents are a bad idea, but still opposes this bill, in much the same way that some free-trade advocates oppose bilateral trade agreements. I see the point; where you stand on this issue is likely a function of how likely you think wholesale patent reform is.

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