By Jason Rantanen
There is a significant body of recent scholarly literature questioning whether patents are effective at disclosing technological information about new inventions. This debate is important because one of the principal justifications for the patent system - especially as viewed by the courts - is that it encourages inventors to disclose the technological underpinnings of their inventions through the incentive of a patent. Criticisms of the disclosure function of patents generally fall into two categories: arguments that patents are not effective mechanisms for conveying technical information and arguments that follow-on inventors do not read patents for their technical content.
In her recent article Do Patents Disclose Useful Information?, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette tackles this issue head-on, offering empirical support for the position that patents do convey useful information. Ouellette, herself a former nanotech scientist, provides the results of a survey conducted of nanotechnology researchers that suggests that, at least in that industry, researchers look to patents for their technical teachings, and that they believe that patents provide useful information that is not available elsewhere - with one notable exception, the problem of reproducibility. Based on these findings, Ouellete argues that we do not grant patents because of disclosure; rather, we require disclosure because we grant patents.
The complete paper is available on ssrn: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1762793.