Anyone who has seen the headlines about patent battles lately—and there have been a lot of headlines—will find them both breathtaking in the amounts of money at stake, and almost dizzying in scope. Could a patent on the appearance of a phone be worth billions of dollars? Is it possible that human genes are patentable? Can Apple really claim rights to rectangular devices with rounded corners—a patent it was just granted in November?
Patents have become a costly and controversial part of the business world: In every sector of the economy, companies spend an increasing amount of time defending, prosecuting, and worrying about the billion-dollar lawsuits that could be on the horizon. Seemingly overnight, we have seen the rise of an entire class of companies—monetizers, or so-called patent trolls—that do nothing but buy up existing patents and then sue manufacturers for violating them. As many critics have begun to point out, what we are seeing is a system of profound importance in American life that has careened out of control. Patents, meant to encourage innovation, today are increasingly threatening to strangle it.