Sunday, February 15, 2009

Groupthink in the danish patent office.

...or maybe rather "how to prevent groupthink in the danish patent office".

As part of taking an interest in Free Software I take an interest in the much broader field of the "government regulated limited monopoly privileges" that are most famously found in copyright, patents and trademarks. The danish patent office happens to be a front runner in blogging among danish governmental and semi-governmental institutions, and I naturally follow their blog.

While following the blog I have had a feeling that something isn't quite right about the tone and angle of the posts. But only recently have I been able to put my finger on what is wrong.

As the patent office is part of the danish ministry of commerce, I guess I expected the employees to somehow have a philosophy of serving the citizens of Denmark. They may even expect that too, but in practice the only perspective they seem to take is that of businesses. And the only laws and rules they seem to care about are those that benefit businesses.

Recently this was put on a point by a post announcing the yearly conference of the patent office which was addressed to "IP professionals" and in which the poster claimed "it is important to us to hear the thoughts of [our] customers and industry on what you think are the biggest challenges in the future of IP".

This echoed with an article about an american conference about software patents in which the basic division in opinion about software patents was: the lawyers were for software patents, and technologists and economists were against. And the author of that article quite reasonably proposed that patent lawyers have a different world-view because of who they interact with.

"Patent attorneys only interact with those parts of the software industry that participate in the patent system. When software engineers write useful software without seeking patents on it — a vastly more common occurrence — patent attorneys will, by definition, not be there. Therefore, patent lawyers are inevitably going to over-estimate the importance of patents to the software industry."

The same can very well apply to the danish patent office. If they only meet with patent holders or patent seekers in their daily work they will only be exposed to one single point of view on patents. Now if they hold conferences and explicitly ask for the same type of people (with the same type of views) to attend it seems to me that they miss a chance to fulfill the role I, at least, imagine is suitable for a government institution.

I asked if the patent office has any strategies to reach out and get opinions from sources other than "industry and customers" but got the answer "we have to prioritize our resources". I don't think this is a reasonable answer. The patent office is not just an administrator of rules. It has important impact on setting opinions and policies on trademarks, patents and related subjects (example). And in my opinion it therefore has a large obligation to keep policies and opinions balanced in favor of citizens. If the working conditions of interacting much with industry makes this difficult (as it must), the patent office has a double obligation to counteract the tendency to industry-group-think. I hope they will honor that obligation.