Remarks delivered at “The Road Back: Restoring American Patents”
Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Andrei Iancu
May 22, 2019
As prepared for delivery
Good evening, everyone, and thank you, Rob (Stien) for that very gracious introduction.
This is a momentous year for science, technology and innovation in the United States. On July 20, in less than a couple months, we will celebrate 50 years since the landing on the moon. A few decades after that incredible feat of American engineering, NASA launched another spacecraft, called Cassini, primarily to study Saturn.
Cassini performed its mission flawlessly for years, but in September 2017, it ran out of fuel, and NASA purposely plunged it into the Saturn atmosphere, sadly, to its final demise. Cassini took many breathtaking photographs of Saturn, its rings and natural satellites. One of the photographs Cassini took before its mission ended is especially poignant.
In this one, Cassini turned its lens around, towards Earth. And so we see the body of Saturn, and its rings in close proximity. Beautiful. And off in the distance, there it is—a tiny speck, a mere dot, barely visible. When the picture went public, one reporter noted that Earth appeared as “an insignificant-looking pale blue dot.” Another wrote, “We’re just a speck of dust.” How small and insignificant, they said, that we humans—with our never-ending silly problems—can seem in the grand scheme of the universe.
And yet, we humans figured out the laws of physics, invented a device, launched it into space, and flew it into the orbit of a far-away planet. And it was humans who commanded this craft, from some 800 million miles away, to turn around, to take a picture, and to send it back to us. Back to this pale blue dot, to this mere speck of dust.
Insignificant? Hardly. When we humans harness that most unique of human qualities—the power to reason, to work together, to create—we are capable of the most remarkable things. That is precisely what inventors do. Through their ingenuity, dogged perseverance, and willingness to take risks, they urge giant leaps upon mankind (to paraphrase Neil Armstrong). And that is especially what American inventors do.
Indeed, over time, and backed by our patent system, American ingenuity has been at the forefront of every major scientific and technological revolution. As a result, the tremendous progress we take for granted today has mostly been made over the past 200 years, and mostly with American innovation.
And though lots of factors have gone into that success, I believe that the uniquely important and history-defining factor is the most important innovation of them all: the United States Constitution, and the inclusion in it of intellectual property (IP) rights. Our constitutional patent system has given rise to a spark of ingenuity and development the magnitude of which humanity has never before known, anywhere in the world, or at any time in history.
Electricity and the telephone; the automobile and the airplane; recombinant DNA, DNA synthesis, and cancer treatments; the microprocessor and the smart phone. And so much more. All that done with American patents. In fact, humanity does not know progress on the scale we have come to expect without our patent system. But in recent years, unfortunately, our system has been pushed and pulled, poked and prodded, putting us on a path of uncertainty.
The good news is that this administration understands the need for a reliable patent system and is working to restore balance. Indeed, as I said at an event a year ago, “This Administration has a mission to create sustained economic growth, and innovation and IP protection are key goals in support of that mission.”
And that is precisely what we have been doing, and what we continue to do. And so we are on the road back! And in further good news, legislators from both parties and both chambers of Congress, and in increasing numbers, likewise understand the need to restore balance. For example, I commend the efforts of Senators Tillis and Coons, and Representatives Johnson, Collins, and Stivers, and all those working with them, to provide a legislative fix to patent eligibility under Section 101 of the patent code.
Of course, every change to the patent statutes has its risks. Patentable subject matter in particular is a complex issue, and we must ensure that any legislation on this topic is narrowly tailored to address the problem at hand, without raising new issues that could add new burdens to, and inject even further uncertainty into, the system.
I and the subject matter experts at the USPTO stand ready to help with any legislative efforts. If the United States is to maintain our technological edge in an increasingly competitive global environment, the American patent system must move beyond the confusion of the past several years when it comes to this most fundamental issue in the patent system.
Our patent system is a gold standard, a crown jewel that provides both the incentives and the protections needed to enable innovation, economic growth, and the resulting betterment of the human condition. Inventors and the public deserve a stable system of laws that they can understand and rely on; because when patent owners and the public have confidence in the system, inventors are encouraged to invent, investments are made, companies grow, and science and technology advance.
That dynamic combination of innovation, economic growth, and technological advancement has long been at the heart of American development since our founding. They are part of who we are as a people and a nation. Indeed, American history is filled with remarkable stories of inventors who worked hard, took risks, persevered, dared to go where others would not, and ultimately overcame tremendous odds to succeed. This is who we are as a people.
And so in invention, I see America; and in inventors, I see the American character. Invention ties our storied past to our bright and promising future. Invention is about trying new things, taking risks, and venturing into the unknown when nobody else would: as the Pilgrims did when they came to these shores against the highest risks, and as the pioneers did as they ventured west into lands unknown, and as the women’s suffrage movement did, and as the civil rights struggle did.
At every turn, through every century since our existence, Americans have defined our history through our willingness to reinvent ourselves while maintaining allegiance to our foundational principles of individual freedom and democracy. Time and again, we resolve our struggles through innovative ideas and solutions unlike the world has ever seen. And even when we fail, our history reminds us that we have always been willing to try again—and again, and again—to do, and to be, better.
This has been the path of American history, and this is the path of invention. And this will also be the path of America’s future. For as glorious as our past has been, I believe our future will be even brighter.
We stand today on the cusp of truly remarkable technological and scientific advancements: artificial intelligence, quantum computing, autonomous vehicles, biotechnology, personalized medicine, and so much more. American innovation will ensure that the future is ours.
And so in invention, I see America. I see her past; and I also see her future. And in inventors, I see the fundamental traits of the American character: grit, imagination, perseverance, and the willingness to take risks. As one inventor recently said in an interview at the USPTO, on what does it take to be a successful inventor: “The most important thing above anything else,” he said, “is perseverance. I think sticking to it and not giving up is what makes the difference.”
Perseverance. Not giving up. Grit. These are the fundamental traits of the American character, from the Pilgrims of Plymouth Landing to America’s inventors. I don’t at all believe that it is a coincidence that invention flourished in the United States to a level never before seen in human history. For our Founders had the remarkable foresight to create a constitutional framework that combines fundamental freedoms with protections for property, including intellectual property. This has proven to be the “secret sauce” needed to foster innovation.
For it is here that we are truly free. Free to imagine, and free to try. Free to succeed, and free to fail. Free to work hard, and free to reap the fruits and the dignity of that work. It is this unique American combination of character, freedom, and intellectual property rights that enabled American innovation to date, and that will inspire the inventors of the future. And it is this unique American system that we must protect and keep in mind as we drive America’s innovation policy. We must continue to encourage the sparks of inventors’ ideas to grow into the flames of world-changing innovation.
And we need to encourage those ‘sparks’ in as many inventors as possible, because innovation is the great equalizer that can dramatically improve quality of life and open the doors of opportunity for all. Indeed, it was the American patent system that for the first time democratized invention. Anyone can participate. There’s no need to be friends with the crown. There’s no need to be wealthy or to have a patron. Our Founders purposefully ensured that our system would be open to all. And the United States needs everyone to participate.
In today’s highly competitive global economy, it’s more important than ever that all Americans who are willing to work hard, persevere, and take risks have the opportunity to innovate, start new companies, succeed in established companies, and ultimately achieve the American dream. In other words, we need all hands on deck.
The good news is that studies show that we can quadruple the rate of innovation in the United States if we focus our national efforts and if we broaden our innovation ecosphere—geographically, demographically, and economically.
So let’s do that! And because innovation is synonymous with America, I am confident that the United States will continue to be the number one economy for intellectual property and lead the world in the technologies of the future.
Thank you again for the invitation to be with you tonight.