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Opinion Abraham Lincoln loved our patent system. Let’s not tear it down.

The statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln is the only president who was ever awarded a patent, for technology that would prevent boats from being stuck in shoals. (Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about patent reform. Catch up here.

Joseph Allen is a former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer who helped enact the Bayh-Dole Act, which opened the way for university-industry R&D partnerships. He now runs his own consulting firm.

Abraham Lincoln once called the patent system one of the three greatest advances in human history, surpassed only by the discovery of America and the printing press. The United States was the first nation to allow commoners to own patents. Having a patent allowed the Wright brothers (two humble bicycle mechanics from Ohio) to beat Samuel Langley, their government-backed rival, to become the first to fly and land a machine heavier than air.

Patents give inventors the right to control how their discoveries are used in exchange for telling the public how they work. This bargain increases knowledge and drives modern economies. Patents are supposed to shield entrepreneurs from having their inventions stolen by powerful competitors, but modern inventors now face a system that has broken its pledge. Rather than addressing the underlying problems, the pending patent reform legislation tilts the system even further against inventors.

If a patent cannot be effectively enforced, it has little value. Courts have made it almost impossible for patent owners to obtain the injunctions that can stop the sale of products that infringe upon their inventions. Giant corporations employ “efficient infringement” strategies knowing they can make big money pirating patents, even if they get caught. Because it is so hard to recover damages, lawyers are often unwilling to defend inventors on a normal contingency fee system, and instead insist upon being paid up front for the considerable costs of an infringement trial.

It’s a grim world if you’re an American inventor hoping to safeguard your work — and it’s getting grimmer.

[Other perspectives: Patent infringement is theft, plain and simple]

At the Patent and Trademark Office, Congress has established an administrative process known as inter partes review to evaluate contested patents. Some call the process  a “patent death squad,” because it strikes down 77 percent of the patent claims it reviews. It also drains badly needed cash from entrepreneurs: Each review costs anywhere from $200,000 to more than $1,000,000. Even if the patent is upheld, innovators lose time and money, commodities desperately needed to commercialize their inventions. It’s no wonder that a company’s stock can tank overnight if an IPR is filed against its patents.

Even worse, unscrupulous parties from around the world can initiate IPRs using fraudulent or deliberately misleading information without fear, because patent owners are prohibited by a court decision from suing to recover resulting economic damages.

You might think these review issues would be the focus of congressional patent reform efforts — but you would be wrong. Instead, Congress is fixated on “patent trolls,” noxious, ill-defined entities threatening Mom-and-Pop retailers with bogus infringement suits unless they’re paid off. Tragically, the proposed solution harms legitimate patent owners more than trolls.

The patent reform bill that has made progress in the House, called the Innovation Act, would force patent owners to pay their opponents’ legal bills if their infringement suit proved unsuccessful. This gives big businesses a formidable tool with which to intimidate inventors from enforcing their patents, as there’s always a chance that any lawsuit will fail and the expense of paying the legal fees of a giant corporation would bankrupt most small companies.

Compounding the problem, the legislation also makes those who back patent-based companies liable for these costs. This could be the death knell for university spin-off companies. Venture capitalists and angel investors would have to think long and hard before putting money into startups built around a patent. Would inventors go to their friends and family for support to launch a company knowing this sword hangs over their heads?

The result is a patent system in crisis, which threatens our economic future. Small businesses received 30 percent of U.S. patents in 2000. Last year the number plummeted to 19.5 percent. Small companies undertake the risk and expense of developing breakthrough technologies that made us the most prosperous nation in history. When they lose confidence in the patent system, the country will suffer.

Emblazoned on the side of the Commerce Department facing the White House are Lincoln’s words: “The patent system adds the fuel of interest to the fires of genius.” If we allow that fuel to rot, we will have no one to blame but ourselves. We would be better advised to restore the patent system that Honest Abe loved so much.

Explore these other perspectives:

John Wiley: Patent infringement is theft, plain and simple

James Bessen and Michael J. Meurer: A third of the economy is at stake — and trolls are to blame

David Pyott: Don’t let hedge funds undermine public health

Julie Samuels: Patents are supposed to encourage innovation. Without reform, they’ll do the opposite.

Colleen V. Chien and Michael Risch: A patent reform we can all agree on